Government Technology

At Issue: Open Data Is Cool, but Is it Sustainable?

Just another catch phrase for data on websites?

February 27, 2012 By

Open data may be cool, as some tech publications put it, but is it useful, sustainable, cost effective and all of that really practical stuff? After all, with an Internet full of data and information, how many people really are interested in machine-readable data sets of city or county expenditures, or the locations of public toilets, boat ramps, or building footprints? Isn't most of that stuff commercially available on the nearest mobile phone?

And isn't open data just the latest buzzword for something that government websites have been providing since the Web was commercialized back in the days of DOS? Isn't open data just the latest catch phrase for information on websites?

Most Americans heard of open data a few years ago when President Obama wanted to put all the stimulus finances online to avoid some of the problems that arise when tax money starts gushing into government programs that are opposed by the opposition -- and thus subject to intense scrutiny, spin and the making of political hay. 

And when Vivek Kundra, the then-CTO of Washington, D.C., decided to democratize data, he said -- in a 2009 GT article -- he did it for several reasons: "No. 1 was to drive transparency; No. 2 was to engage citizens; No. 3 was to ensure that we were lowering the cost of government operations." Kundra put hundreds of data sets onto the Washington, D.C., website so the general public could easily access real-time feeds -- in XML and other formats -- of everything governmental. The district also sponsored the Apps for Democracy contest, which gave prizes to contestants who integrated the data feeds into useful apps. New York City followed suit, and open data seemed like a big deal.

Recently however, the sustainability claims look a bit the worse for wear. Even though the federal government’s expanded to include lots more government data, the fiscal plug was pulled when funding for the program was slashed significantly. So high priority it wasn't, or at least, one could say, the ROI was insufficient to weather the nation’s budget crisis. Of course, teachers, police officers, and many others suffered a similar fate, so the jury is still out on what really matters.

Kundra moved on from Washington, D.C., in 2009 to become the federal government’s CIO, and his successor in the District of Columbia announced that Apps for Democracy may be "more cool than useful" to citizens of the district, and so could be allowed to drop off the twig.

According to the site -- which may be a bit out of date now -- 31 U.S. states and 15 U.S. cities maintain open data sites. Are they still "engaging citizens, driving transparency and ensuring we are lowering the cost of government operations" or are they doomed to fade off into the sunset like so many other cool ideas?

At Issue: Is open data still practical and sustainable, or has that door closed? Weigh in with examples -- GT is preparing a feature story and we would value your contributions. Send your data to Wayne Hanson.

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