Government Technology

Transparency: What to Consider Before Releasing Data to the Public

January 18, 2013 By

Nearly every major city in the U.S. has gotten attention for open data efforts. Government Technology has covered initiatives in Philadelphia, San Francisco and Chicago, as well as smaller cities like Tucson, Ariz., and Madison, Wis., to name just a few.

While few would dispute the benefits of more transparent government operations, the Center for Technology in Government (CTG) in Albany, N.Y., is taking a look at what governments need to consider before releasing data sets for public consumption.

”The idea that it’s a good idea to know what your government is doing is fundamental to democracy, so we think opening government is a phenomenon that needs to be expanded, advanced and encouraged, and has the potential to make our democracy stronger and make our governments more effective,” said CTG Senior Fellow Tony Cresswell.

The Dynamics of Opening Government Data, released last month, looks at what it actually means to release government data sets to the public. Sponsored by software company SAP, the paper evaluates two open data releases – restaurant inspection data in New York City, and road construction information in Edmonton, Alberta.

According to the CTG, governments would be wise to thoughtfully consider which data sets they release. “Picking data resources that have a value proposition both internal to government and externally in the community seem to be the ones with the biggest payoff,” Cresswell explained.

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JC    |    Commented January 22, 2013

All data belongs to the people. Unless it is vital to national security or involves personal safety, then the gov't. should not be allowed to cherry-pick what data the people may see and use. Democracy cannot exist in darkness.

Bob Everett    |    Commented January 22, 2013

Virtually all my data (and assessors offices are one of the largest data producers in local government)is mandated by state (SC) statute to be publicly available except for SS numbers. We find that a web hosting firm provides the best means of doing that in today's world. My databases are not publicly accessible, but the data can be viewed and downloaded on a realistic (within 1 week vs. real time) basis.

Steve    |    Commented January 22, 2013

This is an interesting debate that really needs to happen, notwithstanding the oversimplistic comments such as those already here. I can't forget a meeting I attended in the UK a year or so ago where this question of what information should "opened" (aka, made easily available online) was raised and the TBL disciples all shouted us down when we suggested a ROI analysis with a value metric. "Who are you to know what data might have value to some new innovative company" we were told! The problem folks, is that it does cost money to "open" data and most Western countries are short on that, and actually considering cutbacks in important social programs. To say that we should devote unlimited resources to "opening" govt data without any regards to ROI is misguided. Opening of govt data will be a long process, and just like it would be nice to have a high speed rail network tomorrow, it would be nice to have all government data "open" tomorrow. But neither of these nice to haves are realistic in the world we live in today.

Diana    |    Commented January 23, 2013

Steve, you hit it on the head. There just is not a financially responsible way to open all the data at once. We have to start some where. And it is better use of public funds to cherry pick based upon potential value. It amazes me that so many people think we can just make it happen. Even the voluteer organizations that focus on open data, will cherry-pick a few data sets to work on. They are not government, and they agree, it is a long, resource-intensive process.

JK    |    Commented January 25, 2013

Releasing data is a ridiculously tiny expense within government budgets. The real issue is government's tolerance for disruption --- including implementing changes that benefit the public. The release of the NYC restaurant data compelled the city to have more frequent inspections and post the results faster. That's a good thing! We can't do a cost/benefit analysis for every data release. It's an excuse for inaction. The government is the steward of the data, not the owner.

Jerry Hall    |    Commented February 2, 2013

I have to agree with JK. Opening data doesn't take legions of people months of work. It involves creating a repository (using or for instance). Once setup datasets can be loaded and readily accessible by anyone. That's simplistic of course but, the point is the datasets are everywhere, can be indexed in a single location and available to any user - especially intra-government users. The issue of how the data is updated is also important as well as the need for a static nature of the dataset structure so developers can tap into it without having to change their code again and again. There are also many groups such as that have been creating 'brigades' in cities all over America where top-tier programmers and entrepreneurs are working with government to create data-related applications on a pro-bono basis. Such teams can also be tapped into to help setup local data catalogs. The open-data movement is here. There are many passionate volunteers that want to work with their communities to open access to the data so they can help others participate more intelligently with government. I hope we can all embrace the concept and invite not only volunteers but, entrepreneurs - a critical element in the fabric of our local communities and nation - who will develop myriad ideas to use the data. Sure, some may make money but, isn't the end goal here to improve government efficiency, engage intelligent discourse with residents and improve our economy? If that's all true government should be lining up to release their data. Open government data practices may very well become the best thing that ever happened to our communities. Let's talk about how to open our data as effectively and quickly as possible. We don't need government to throttle information. That model is so twentieth century :)

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