The benefits of open data

Where is the money going?

recovery.gov mapAs part of its response to the economic crisis, the US federal government approved the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – a stimulus package worth $787 billion (subsequently increased to $840 billion) – in February 2009.  The Act provides financing for tax cuts and benefits, “entitlement programs” (such as unemployment benefits) and federal contracts grants and loans.

But where exactly is the money going?  The recovery.gov website was set up a few months later to answer that very question.  It provides consolidated and regularly updated information from the different agencies that are involved in managing funding under the Recovery Act.  The website provides access to the following data:

  • Breakdown of funding by category (including grants and loans to support education, transportation, infrastructure, energy and the environment, research and development …)
  • Detailed information on the activities and performance of each of the agencies involved in managing funding
  • Interactive map allowing users to click down as far as street level to access information on beneficiaries and other data
  • A “Recovery Explorer” allowing users to create their own customized graphs and charts
  • Instructions on how to report “fraud, waste and abuse”

I was so impressed by the website that I contacted the team and was pleased to have an opportunity to speak with Alice Siempelkamp (Assistant Director at recovery.gov).  She provided me with some useful insights about their experiences with the technical development of the platform, the resources they invested in the user interface, as well as content management.  This will be useful when I return to Brussels in a few weeks, since one of my main priorities will be to work with colleagues on our communication strategy for the 2014-2020 period of EU structural and investment funding.

But Recovery.gov is just one example of the move in the USA over the last 4-5 years to make huge quantities of government data available online.

Making content available “anywhere, anytime, on any device”

Open data underpins the US government’s digital strategy, which aims to make sure that public information is available “anywhere, anytime, on any device”.

On his first day in office in 2009, President Obama signed a Memorandum on Transparent and Open Government.  This was followed up by an Open Government Directive, which set tight deadlines for federal agencies to boost transparency, including publishing new data sets on the data.gov portal that was launched in mid-2009.

In May 2013, the Obama administration went a step further by issuing a new executive order requiring all data generated by the government be made available in open, machine-readable formats.

Going local with open data

Some of the most impressive open data initiatives I have seen during my stay here in the USA are at the state and city level.  This is where government data relates most immediately too people’s everyday concerns (transportation, crime, health care …).  Opening up government data is helping to drive the development of new services designed to meet local needs.

Seattle’s open data portal offers information from emergency services response times to an interactive map of public art.  Open data helped the City of New York to deal with damaged trees after Hurricane Sandy, as well as mapping which restaurants dump harmful cooking grease into city sewers.   And Chicago recently won a $1 million award for its proposal to build the first citywide real-time predictive analytics platform.

Wally Rogers, who manages the State of Oregon’s e-government programme, described to me how some datasets that were previously provided on request to a handful of people are now downloaded tens of thousands of times from Oregon’s open data portal.  Users are also allowed to suggest datasets they would like to see on the portal.  Making this data available online has enabled the development of new services, such as an interactive map of boating access sites.  Oregon’s Open Data Portal has received awards from the Center for Digital Government and the National Association of State Chief Information Officers.

Benefits of open data

So what is driving the open data movement in the USA?  From the examples I have been able to study and the conversations I have had with people working on open data in federal, state and city government, there seem to be several benefits:

  • Transparency (a study by Socrata found that more than two thirds of the public expect government data to be made available online)
  • Visibility (there is a high level of demand for data from journalists, and data can be a great way of sharing information, particularly when it is presented visually in a way that makes complex issues understandable)
  • Mobilisation (good open data platforms leverage the social potential of open data by allowing users to suggest datasets, as well as making it easy to share information via social media, sign up for alerts, embed datasets in blogs and other websites …).
  • Collaboration (open data boosts cooperation and knowledge sharing, breaking down silos between different government agencies and departments)
  • Performance (data can help government to be more efficient in setting objectives, reviewing progress and publishing results)
  • Innovation (open data provide the basis for the provision of new services, often developed in cooperation with volunteers from outside government, like the recent National Day of Civic Hacking that took place recently in around 80 US cities including Seattle)
  • Freeing up staff time (publishing government data in open formats reduces the time government workers have to spend dealing with public enquiries)
  • Cost savings (many US states and cities seem to be opting for cloud based solutions to share government data, rather than investing in costly internal development and hosting)
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