The Importance of Open Data in Municipal Governments

Introduction

“Open data” describes the provision of datasets describing activities from a company, organization, or government for public use. (Josefin, 2019) Open data can be provided by scientists (who probably pioneered the concept), but also by cities, companies and others who wish for others to have access to the data they produce to ensure that we can all gain insights from the information.

Some governments have been very responsive to proposals for open data. For example, New York City has laws enshrining the public’s access to open data and more than 1600 datasets are available for download and updated regularly.

More than publishing data however, for it to be truly useful it must be provided in a machine-readable format so that data analysis will be possible and true insights can be determined among the data.

Many US municipalities that have adopted open data programs are still provided low quality data to them. (Myongho, 2019) which hampers their usefulness.

Benefits of Open Data

There are a number of benefits of open data. For example, one study of open government in Swedish towns (Ulf, 2016) found that open data had the potential to:

  • Improve decision-making
  • Provide for more innovative products and services
  • Increase transparency
  • Cultivate higher accountability

These are certainly lofty goals and a good benefit for those pursuing open data. It’s important to recognize that these benefits can only be realized if the best practices for open data are followed. You can read more about those below.

Drawbacks of Open Data

There are also drawbacks to open data, that must be weighed against the benefits in order for a community to decide to implement open data. These drawbacks can include:

  • Adding to the workload of limited staff
  • Potentially more money spent on data storage (or subscribing to cloud providers)
  • Lack of technical staff to get data into machine-readable format
  • The need to “scrub” data of personal or confidential information

There are many ways that municipal and local governments can use open data to improve their day-to-day.

Best Practices for Open Data

According to OpenGovData (Tauberer, n.d.) based on a workshop of 30 open government advocates the following best practices for open data in government:

  1. Data must be complete. If a dataset is not as complete as possible, it is not as valuable as it could be. The more complete the dataset the more valuable it is as an analytical resource.
  2. Data must be primary source. Data should be as close to its original source as possible. Summaries or agregates reduce the value of open data. This type of aggregation can be done by analysts if necessary, but non-grouped data is the most valuable because it can be transformed or analyzed in many different ways to identify all insights.
  3. Data must be timely. Data should be made available as soon as it is reasonable. If release of open data is delayed, it loses its value.
  4. Data must be accessible. Data should be on the Internet. If it is not internet-accessible, you run into access issues (see principle 6)
  5. Data must be machine-readable. Images are not machine-readable. If the data is not machine processible or machine readable, it won’t be able to be used for analysis. While uploading data as images is a good first step, it is not truly open data.
  6. Data access must be non-discriminatory. This means that you must not limit who can access the data, for example allowing only nonprofits or government employees to do so. This goes directly against the principle of open data.
  7. Data must non-proprietary. Data must not be placed into a proprietary file format. For example, PDF or Stata are proprietary formats that are controlled by private companies. Comma Separated Value (CSV) files are non-proprietary and can be manipulated as needed and imported into many different programs.
  8. Data must be license-free. This means that anyone may use the data for commercial or non-commercial purposes. There must be no licenses that restrict use of the data, because that can prevent it from being transformed into useful tools or having insights gained from the data.

How Municipal and Local Governments can use Open Data

Climate Change

If your government has chosen to make reducing the impact of climate change a priority, you can

Finance and Budgeting

You can provide monthly or quarterly budget information to your constituents in an online dashboard so they can see how the city is performing. When budgets run over, constituents will be able to understand why earlier while the municipality can make changes to prevent it from happening again.

If a project comes in under-budget, you’ll be able to celebrate and decide how to spend the surplus, improving trust.

Healthcare

Understanding when and how people are getting sick in your community can help improve city services. For example, if there is an increase in overdoses or in obesity-related illnesses, city services can be targeted at those areas to improve health outcomes.

Poverty Alleviation

By understand who is in poverty in your community, nonprofits can focus on building programs to serve those overlooked individuals. This can go beyond the poverty rate, to information the community may have on where homeless individuals locate, what they believe led them to poverty and what police records indicate about the activities of homeless individuals who come into contact with the justice system.

Traffic and Road Information

Your city probably collects a lot of data on the road infrastructure and may collect data on the traffic situation. Congestion can be reported in near-real time (as with the Waze app), but potholes information and other open data can spur fundraising or creative solutions to reduce the impact of road damage on the city budget.

Utility Updates

Similar to the above, utility information can be fed into a live dashboard so that when there are outages or updates, residents will be able to access that information immediately.

On a more long-term basis, if you have made a commitment to a particular project, you can provide access to the data that shows how well that project is proceeding. For example, if there are street lights to be replaced that information can be provided as it happens.

Conclusion

Open data represents an opportunity for your government or municipality to provide information it already has to the public. With that information, projects can be built and insights gained that wouldn’t be possible with only the resources available at City Hall.

In addition to increasing transparency and accountability, novel solutions can be found to challenging problems through the use of open data – as long as individual privacy is respected and open data best practices are followed.

References

Josefin, L. (2019) Re-use of open data from public sector: Characterising the phenomena. International Journal of Public Information Systems. 13(1):1-29

Myongho, Y. (2019). Exploring the quality of government open data : Comparison study of the UK, the USA and Korea. The Electronic Library, (1), 35. https://0-doi-org.aupac.lib.athabascau.ca/10.1108/EL-06-2018-0124

Tauberer, J. (n.d.) “The 8 Principles of Open Government Data” Retrieved on September 15, 2019 from https://opengovdata.org

Ulf, M. (2016) Challenges and Benefits in an Open Data Initiative: A Local Government Case Study of Myths and Realities. Innovation and the Public Sector Electronic Government and Electronic Participation, 111. https://0-doi-org.aupac.lib.athabascau.ca/10.3233/978-1-61499-670-5-111

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