The Growth of Open Data and Why It Matters

February 19, 2013

 

Brief History

 

Since the early 1950’s, the concept of open data has been around. But until recently, open data remained mostly in the scientific world. But with the introduction of smart phone technology, the opportunities to utilize data collected and distributed, especially those produced by government agencies, has become a world-wide phenomenon. To date there are over 200 open data catalogues for local, regional and national entities.

 

Growing Initiatives, Growing Demand

 

 

Despite the willingness of government agencies (21 cities and counties in the U.S. as of 2012) to produce open data sets and the admirable, growing initiatives of such organizations as Code For America, a nonprofit tasked with  "helping governments become more connected, lean, and participatory through new opportunities for public service" as well as "creating the relationships and network for lasting change", and the Kauffman Foundation, composed of "engaged citizens, contributing to the improvement of their communities", the effective utilization of open data is still in its infancy. With data feeds not yet following standard protocols, feeds are produced using a wide variety of formats from CSS to XML, making it difficult to streamline or automate implementation of the data into easily developed website, web apps or mobile applications.

 

More importantly, while citizens are clamoring for more mobile access to things like knowing exactly where their bus or train is, most government agencies are still struggling just to manage the data being produced, let alone understand how to effectively deploy or manage the data feeds. In fact, a study released in February, 2013, indicates that over three fourths of government workers recognize that ready access to data could generate new services and jobs, but even more workers did not know what data was available, how to understand it or how to best deliver it.

On top of grappling with the challenges of creating open data, most cities have been hard hit with shrinking budgets, yet the demand to produce reliable information continues to grow. Thus, a new set of problems are facing governments and communities not only in the United States but throughout the world.

 

Problems Surrounding Open Data

 

While this is not a complete list, one problem is how to make open data meaningful for developers, users and for the agencies generating the data. How do we create standardized requirements for open data feeds without inhibiting the creativity of the developers using the data and without piling on additional work for already overworked IT workers? How do cities harvest analytics from the data they're generating - and how do they then use those analytics to best serve the public? Additionally, what other uses can be discovered beyond the data once the feeds are being used in websites, apps, and other tools? Are there ways to engage the community beyond accessing the data feeds? And then, once that data is in use, how does the community give feedback?

 

Solutions and Opportunities

 

Open data initiatives have opened up a Pandora's Box of opportunities, but it hasn't come without an additional set of new challenges. As we've worked with our clients in city government to produce mobile applications utilizing open data, we've begun to develop strategies to provide solutions for some of the problems facing cities who have opted into open data. And we think the problems we're solving are going to create opportunities for developers who are grappling with these challenges worldwide.

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