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With open data, the plan is as important as the portal

Over the past several years, open data has become decidedly mainstream. The federal government, cities, counties and states all are launching portals that provide digital access to data on government performance.

Apparently, however, not everyone gets what they expect from open data solutions. A recent article in the Bellevue Leader said the city of Bellevue, Neb., is dropping its contract with Socrata, a provider of a cloud-based platform and applications that help government organizations manage and share their data. Assistant City Administrator Larry Burks said the program “was confusing, attracted few users and largely duplicated work done by city staffers.” according to the paper.

“I don’t know the particular circumstances within Bellevue, Nebraska, that may have led to them not achieving the level of success we want and expect and work hard to deliver for our other 1,399 customers,” Saf Rabah, Socrata's chief marketing and product officer, said.

But experts agree there are steps cities can take to ensure they’re getting the service they want from the tools they invest in. One of the first steps is knowing the available choices.

Luke Fretwell, the CEO of Proud City, a digital-government platform provider, said there are a handful of options in the open data space that governments can turn to for building a platform. Socrata, Junar, OpenGov and OpenDataSoft all offer open data solutions. But there are also free, open source solutions: CKAN (Python based) and DKAN (Drupal based). Fretwell works with CivicActions, which helps maintain and implement DKAN.

Before a city decides which solution it is going to implement, though, it needs a plan in place, Fretwell said.

“The ideal process is you come up with a data policy,” he said. That policy should be informed by what the city wants to accomplish with its open data and outline how it plans to make that a reality.

Stephen Larrick, the Open Cities Director for the Sunlight Foundation, said a data policy should be codified “with public policy so there is an expectation of what the public will have access to, so if those things don’t happen there can be public oversight.”

Other considerations should be determining the prioritization of data releases, creating public application programming interfaces, mandating data publication and updates and creating a centralized location for publishing data. Sunlight has compiled thinking of creating an open data policy, he added.

Socrata's Rabah also agreed that open data initiatives should support a city's policies and processes. “Open data, in our experience, needs to map to whatever the strategic goals of the organization are,” he said. When open data is a standalone program it tends to be less successful, but when it is informing another initiative like a transit improvement or a push to end homelessness, then the data can be harnessed to realize an objective.

The ROI of opening data

“What’s the cost benefit of open data? This is a great question, and it's a really important question,” Larrick said. “And certainly groups like Sunlight think there is an intrinsic democratic value, but in a very pragmatic way, we work with cities all the time that” have to justify their budget.

Cities must determine what data will bring the most benefit. They can identify the most valuable data by asking what people want to see and even looking at records requests to see what’s often sought out.

But the greatest return won't come from opening up data so a developer can make an app, it will come from internal use of the data, both Fretwell and Rabah suggested. Analyzing performance metrics is where the real ROI can start to be realized, Fretwell said.

So once there is an open data plan in place, then what? There is the procurement phase, but prior to signing any contract, Fretwell suggested agencies try a product before buying if the vendor is open to it. Socrata doesn’t do try before you buy, but it does consult with potential clients and encourages customers to run pilots, Rabah said.

Open-source options

Depending on a city’s requirements, there might not be any need for a contract.

“When you’re doing open data, think about the open-source option because it provides you with more flexibility in the long term,” Fretwell suggested.

“There are both cost savings and operational efficiencies and other kinds of benefits” that come with open-source solutions for data publications, said Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation.This includes not being locked in to a particular solution, he added.

Rabah agreed that open-source solutions are “fantastic” because they help create a better ecosystem for everyone. Socrata is also interoperable with CKAN.

At the end of the day, though, Howard suggested that any open data effort is better than none  at all.

“While there are advantages to choosing any number of vendors or technologies, it’s still possible to just publish a spreadsheet on the internet on a website,” he said. “You don’t need a complicated portal, you don’t need a cloud-based software-as-a-service solution, you don’t have to enter into a long-term contract  … you can just publish the data directly to the public." 

Editor's note: This article was changed Dec. 19 to correct a production error that deleted names of open data products.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a reporter/producer at GCN.

Before joining GCN, Leonard worked as a local reporter for The Smithfield Times in southeastern Virginia. In his time there he wrote about town council meetings, local crime and what to do if a beaver dam floods your back yard. Over the last few years, he has spent time at The Commonwealth Times, The Denver Post and WTVR-CBS 6. He is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he received the faculty award for print and online journalism.

Leonard can be contacted at mleonard@gcn.com or follow him on Twitter @Matt_Lnrd.

Click here for previous articles by Leonard.


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