5 reasons why good governments should embrace open data

Jonathan Reichental is the CIO of the City of Palo Alto, Calif., and one of the world’s leading proponents of open data. Why is he so big the idea of giving citizens access to the data their governments collect? Because even in times of recession and debt, he said on our Structure Show podcast this week, the one thing governments always have in abundance is data. And it belongs to the people.

However, Reichental noted, open data doesn’t just mean available data. One key notion is that the data should be available in the formats people need — including those that are readable by machines — so they can do the things they need to do with it. “That machine readable concept is an important, important criteria that differentiates open data from just accessing data,” he said.

Here are some highlights from our interview, in which Reichental states his case for why governments should undertake the work of making their data open and makes clear that we’re just in the early stages of the movement. While some cities such as Palo Alto are exposing valuable data as APIs in near real-time, the vast majority haven’t even taken the first step. If you’re interested in the transformative power of data — and in transforming governments — you’ll want to hear the whole thing.

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It’s the right thing to do

“It’s a responsibility of government to make the data we hold on behalf of our communities easily accessible. And I think it’s an unfilled responsibility. It’s 2013, and it’s pretty hard to get information from governments around America,” Reichental said.

Yes, most governments have laws that require them to provide data when citizens ask for it, but the process can be slow, cumbersome and ultimately not that effective. If government officials really believe in not just following the letter of law, but the spirit of it, he argues, they really should follow the tenets of open data.

“Each of us who have the honor of serving in a public agency … we get to try to move the needle forward and make governments richer and better and more open and more democratic,” Reichental added. “If communities of people don’t have access to the data they’re entitled to, that’s a roadblock to democracy and that’s not where we want to be.”

It can transform cities, states and countries

“What we’ve found, just in the the last few years, is industrious people will do smart things. They will take that data and reuse it and bring forward new capabilities,” Reichental said.

We’re still a long way from achieving any sort of open data nirvana, where the public and private sectors are working hand in hand to make cities as efficient as possible, but the groundwork is being laid. He points to a third-party web application in Palo Alto that maps all the permit applications around the city and lets anyone dig into the details of each one. Now, maybe an architect curious about a new construction project because he wants to get involved, or a citizen who just wants to know about something happening on his street, can get answers fast.

And the federal government’s Data.gov website points to hundreds of apps created by citizens using government data, Reichental noted.

“No one tries to judge what uses people will have for it,” he said, “but having the information enables people to derive whatever they need.”

Reichental at a hackathon, where the city tries to put its data in front of developers.

Reichental at a hackathon, where the city tries to put its data in front of developers.

It can transform government — in time

Not only can open data make it possible for citizens to do more with data, but it should help governments get better at doing new things as well. Only, the changes that come from smart data usage won’t come overnight.

“This is hard. It’s more than technology. It’s culture, it’s process, it’s reinvention, it’s re-engineering,” Reichental said. “… The solution is going to be difficult. It’s going to require different thinking and in many ways a new generation of public sector employees.”

He continued: “To your question of whether government staff can also use the open data, it’s a question of skill. So let’s start by hiring the right people — the skills for the future, not for the past. Although elected officials may not know it, many of them are going to have to acquire data-analysis skills too, because this thing isn’t going away and it’s going to become a big part of how we govern and how we make decisions.”

It’s not expensive …

For budget-conscious officials who might stop reading as soon as it sounds like something might cost money, Reichental offered this piece of advice: “[T]his is not expensive. You don’t have to choose between a new ambulance or police car and open data. You don’t have to choose between surfacing a road and open data. Because they’re just not on equal footing, then entry cost here is very, very low.”

Additionally, he noted, just consider the costs in salary, benefits and other compensation of having government employees spend their time tracking down and serving every request for data — something of which there are many in a reasonably sized city. “If some of that data was just available online in a machine-consumable format, we would avoid those requests, avoid those costs, and you’ve paid this thing back pretty fast,” Reichental said. “Very, very fast.”

A graph showing Palo Alto's obligations to retired city employees.

A graph showing spending by Palo Alto’s city council.

… and it might save your city

“There’s nothing better than an informed populace,” he said. “… More elected officials will be held accountable to this data that’s available and transparent to their communities.”

In a country like the United States where some cities are going bankrupt, struggling with corruption and otherwise underwater financially, open data could potentially help shine a light on the problems. “If you had good access to data, you could avoid problems in the future, because it helps you make smart decisions along the way instead of being surprised,” Reichental said. “… And if you don’t know as a government official, someone who’s looking at it may find that. It really is the ultimate in government oversight, in many ways.”

However, he cautioned, governments shouldn’t look to open data as a primary method for cutting their costs: “Nobody should be asking the question right now, ‘Are we saving money with open data?’ The only question I would suggest public agencies should focus on is ‘Are we doing the right thing? Are we making our data available and machine-consumable to our communities?'”