What’s next for open data?
- By Stephanie Kanowitz
- Dec 10, 2014
Since the White House issued its open data policy in May 2013, federal agencies and state and local governments have been scrambling to make information more publicly available. The results this year were mixed, leading the Brookings Institute to question whether the initiative is useful or merely a data dump.
“Agencies at all levels of government are investing in open data programs, but there is little research on the utility of these programs in terms of increasing transparency, collaboration or participation,” wrote Kevin Desouza, a nonresident senior fellow of government studies at the institute’s Center for Technology Innovation, and Kendra Smith, a doctoral candidate at Arizona State University, in a recent blog post.
“Large variation in open data policies makes such evaluations extremely complicated. Apples-to-apples comparisons of open data policies are difficult because federal, state and local level governments have distinctive operational and infrastructural constraints.”
Although some government entities are opening data only to adhere to mandates, many are working to make it useful, said Kin Lane, an application programming interface (API) evangelist.
“I think it is a line item that agencies do check and say, ‘Hey, we did it and get off our backs.’ But when you actually look, it’s not all it should be, so that is a problem,” Lane said. “But there are, I would say, an equal number of agencies who are committed to it and understand that it takes quality data and several iterations before people will do anything with it.”
Lane pointed to the Education Department’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid program as a success story. It’s also an interagency effort because Education officials are working with the Internal Revenue Service and the White House.
“They didn’t know about open data or APIs, really, and then the White House stepped in and said, ‘Hey, we need to make students’ financial data more accessible to help people through the financial aid process.”
The program needed the IRS to be more open so that students could more easily access their parents’ earnings information, Lane said. So the IRS launched a transcript application that lets people “put in their Social Security number and download the transcript, so it’s an open data step for the IRS.”
At the state and local levels, officials are also starting to see the benefits of open data, and that was a game changer in 2014.
“I think that was the tipping point at the municipal level.” Open data is not just a nice-to-have; it’s critical, Lane said. “We’re getting past that honeymoon period.”
Open data is a good thing, but providing context is better, said Ashley Fruechting, director of strategic initiatives at Vision Internet, a government website developer, and officials are starting to see that they don’t have to open every data set they have to enable changes.
“There have been some agencies who have jumped on open data and opened data sets without a really clear understanding of what the citizens were supposed to do with the information, so in that case, I would agree with the [Brookings] assessment,” Fruechting said. But there are many agencies that have come up with applications that provide a lens through which the data becomes meaningful, she said. “I think that’s the critical difference.”
Officials should prioritize data that has a logical application and make sure they have a goal for opening this information. “They need to ask, ‘What do we hope residents will learn by looking at this information?’” she said. Then they must be very thoughtful in how the data is released in order to “make sure that the resident isn’t the one having to connect all of those dots.”
In opening data, government must also consider who’s using it and how it’s being used, said Angela Fultz Nordstrom, a vice president at the National Information Consortium, an e-government services provider. For instance, a researcher who wants to build a new product needs raw data, while a typical resident wouldn’t know what to do with that. But government can deliver to both groups. “I think that technology is going to continue to help that,” Nordstrom said.
APIs help bridge that knowledge gap by letting users work with information without having to be developers, Lane said. Yet, the open data movement suffers from a lack of APIs, he said.
“Turning new data sets into APIs and making them more usable and accessible ensures people are going to build more interesting things with them. I see a lot of people moving beyond open data and moving just APIs into that toolbox. I think 2015 and ’16 we’re going to see a lot more of that.”
Citizens need to take more of the effort into their own hands and demand more openness from government, he added.
“This isn’t just a geeks issue or an open data geeks issue or a federal, state, city or agency thing,” Lane said. “This is something everyone should think about.”
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.