Study: A Three-Tier System, Utility & Collab for Open Data

A screenshot of Toronto's Open Data Site, which allows for collaboration about data sets.

A screenshot of Toronto's Open Data Site, which allows for collaboration about data sets.

Pioneering an open data policy on the government level is not the easiest initiative without support, according to a recent study by the Open Society Institute. It takes various levels of negotiations among parties of the public, elected officials and “civic hackers”.  Furthermore, some government administrations are more risk adverse than others, unsure on how to proceed from being closed to being open in the most cost-effective manner.   Most seek to replicate best practices from successful initiatives and improve on others through news stories and conferences, but never some thing tangible; a resource guide, such as our own OpenMuni wiki (still in development), could be more purposeful in understanding the processes of unlocking accessible and quality data.

The report, commissioned by Open Society Institute’s Transparency and Accountability Initiative and written by Becky Hogge, provided insights on the UK and US processes to unlocking their data to their respective’s.   The report at the outset seeks to define the feasibility of open data initiatives from both sides to Atlantic on middle and developing countries (such as China and South Africa).  The World Bank and United Nations data are already available (and they also shifted to more openness), but data from the source (the nation and various cities) would be nice.  Building from the U.S. and UK models, can cities and developing nations pursue the same strategies to open government data?

The report concludes that the US and UK approached a three-tiered system to successfully implement their open data initiatives:

  1. Motivation from civic hackers or good government groups
  2. An efficient and engaged “middle government” workforce (agencies, departments of the government)
  3. Top-level support and mandate to encourage this change

While this approach may work for most developed nations or nations close to an economic steady state (neoclassical theory), Hogge suggests, through interviews with international leaders pursuing similar goals, that developing nations will need funding and guidance from international aid donors to achieve the inspiration and successful implementation.  These contributions can help deploy the initiative by creating competitions and educating the next generations of policy wonks and developers.   Many cities (even in the U.S.) lack a developer-base and are holding competitions to entice outside developers to fill the gap and generate open data-driven web applications after the release of several highly demanded datasets.  The economic impact has convinced many cities to release their data, but even this can vary from government to government.  Not many studies have been done to show significant evidence on the ROI of open data.   I recommend reading Dan McQuillian’s observations on the open data movement so we don’t approach an “emperor’s new clothes” (c.f. p. 23 of Hogge) and actually offer the social change we really need.

Nonetheless, Hogge argues that important part of any open data movement is the resulting utility of the data rather than the amount of users downloading (p. 19).    As in economics, one should also seek to maximize the social benefits through utility.  Applications that promote the closure of the digital divide will usually have the greatest impact.  For example, Chicago was awarded for the sustainable adoption segment of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) of the federal stimulus package in order to assimilate populations without a computer or internet connection.  As Gov 2.0 expands, Chicago’s Civic 2.0 will focus on civic and public uses of the Internet, and it will teach adults and parents how to access civic data for local community improvement purposes and the use digital media tools for community organizing purposes.  An open data movement here can provide new apps and also evaluate the quality of life improvement from data collected.

Hogge’s study is a good start to the growing movement.  Inspired cities can create open cities with some help—collaboration. These cities will have to evaluate available resources before crossing the river. Having a wiki or central list of best practices (OpenMuni and Government 2.0 Wiki, for example) will be an invaluable instrument for cities to explore the various models of open data and then develop their own unique initiatives through civic engagement and collaboration.  The resulting trajectory builds a strong data eco-system towards greater social and economic gains.

You can read Becky Hogge’s Open Data Study in full at

Sam Wong is a summer intern at OpenPlans, researching best practices in government open source and open data as part of our initiative. Sam previously served as Legislative Aide on Technology in Government for the New York City Council.