Houston Mayor Annise Parker recently introduced a new open data policy in the nation’s fourth-largest city. “First and foremost, this is about increasing transparency,” she said in the city’s announcement. “It is also about citizen engagement and increasing the pace of innovation in our city. We want to engage the talents of our strong science, technology, engineering and math community to help us solve the challenges of the 21st century.”
Those sentiments are shared by plenty of state, county and city leaders around the country who want to unlock their data and transform how governments operate, engage with constituents and foster innovation and economic development.
According to a new 2014 open data benchmarking study to be released by Seattle-based Socrata on Friday, 80 percent of federal-, state-, county- and city-level government respondents indicated that they will invest the same or more in open data within the next six months.
In the case of Houston, part of Parker’s open data investment was the creation of a new position, data enterprise officer, and an advisory board who will help the mayor implement new standards and policies for how the city manages and publishes its information.
The detailed study by Socrata, a privately held cloud software company that helps public-sector organizations with transparency, citizen services and data-driven decisionmaking, gives an eye-opening look at current open data attitudes within different layers of U.S. governments, examining everything from open data’s impacts on job growth and economic development to the ability to create higher levels of engagement and trust in government.
“What this report does is confirm the fact that the open-data movement has become a viral movement and has become something that’s unstoppable,” Bill Glenn, vice president for marketing at Socrata, told GovExec State & Local in an interview prior to the study’s release.
The study, conducted by EMC Research, contacted 58,000 people working at the federal-, state-, county- and city-government level including some individuals who work outside government but work regularly with the public sector. Of the 1,273 people who finished the study, 961 completed follow-up interviews. Most of those 961 respondents work in government, with 306 from state and state agencies, 181 from counties and 371 from cities.
Glenn said that historically, there have been some questions within the public sector about the value of open data: “Does open data bring more than just transparency to government? What is the real value? What is the real impact that open data can have not only for governments internally but constituents externally?”
The study provides some answers. “Doing reports like this allows us to get direct feedback from government officials and their organizations about what value that open data is bringing to their constituents and internal organizations,” Glenn said.
Making More Investments
A vast majority of respondents—80 percent—said they would be investing the same amount of resources or be making additional investments in open-data initiatives. According to the report:
- The report asked respondents about plans for investing money and resources in open data initiatives. The results confirm open data will continue to grow in the government sector, with 80% of respondents saying their investment and spending on open data initiatives will be consistent or increase in the future.
- More than a quarter (28%) plan to increase their investment in open data, with over half (52%) saying they will invest the same amount. Only 3% say they will invest less.
According to the study, a plurality—41 percent—of government respondents said that their government has a policy to make as much data available as possible. Forty-eight percent said that they focus on the most important and useful data, while 11 percent said they do the legally-mandated minimum.
Leadership on open data is important, according to Socrata’s study. Seventy-two percent of respondents said that pursuing open-data initiatives needs the direction of government leaders.
According to the study:
Almost three quarters (72%) agree with the statement “open data can’t be pursued without the direction of leadership or elected leaders in our organization.” Only one in five (20%) disagree. The widespread agreement with this statement makes it clear that if open data initiatives are to happen, leadership within governmental organizations needs to set the directions.
For Abhi Nemani, the new chief data officer for the city of Los Angeles, to demonstrate strong open data leadership, you have to show everyone what’s possible.
“It’s critical to take the concept of open data out of the abstract and into the tangible,” Nemani told GovExec State & Local. “That means building tools, visualizations, and programs that illustrate clearly how open data can improve both the operations of government and the quality of life of residents in the city.”
But effective open data leadership also needs clear communication within governments about their objectives and policies.
In Prince George’s County, Maryland, just outside the nation’s capital, Chief Information Officer Vennard Wright, told GovExec State & Local that with implementation of the county’s open data policy, “we’ve answered questions about governance, privacy of data and update frequency in order to address any misconceptions that are commonly associated with sharing data openly.”
Boosting Constituent Trust, Engagement and Economic Development
A vast majority of respondents in Socrata’s study said that open data can boost public trust in government (83 percent) and improve engagement with constituents (86 percent).
For Prince George’s County, the open data movement is still relatively new. The county’s portal, Data Prince George’s, built in collaboration with Socrata, launched in September.
That’s meant that the county has been actively promoting the new portal and finding ways to engage with residents around the information being made available through it, which includes “spearheading other efforts such as town halls and hackathons in order to gather feedback and to encourage new and creative ways to interact with Data Prince George’s,” Wright told GovExec State & Local.
In Los Angeles, Nemani observed that Mayor Eric Garcetti’s “commitment to transparency and accountability for the city through open data led to increased engagement,” adding that “traditionally the budgeting process in the city was not easy for citizens to engage with or understand where taxpayer dollars were going; this year, the city opened up this process, publishing the mayor’s proposed budget before it went to council for approval, enabling broader participation from the public.”
Open data is no longer only being touted as just a way to be more transparent and support good-government principles: It’s about jobs and economic development, too.
According to the study, “the reliance on government open data by private sector organizations has been established and that governments are using these organizations to function by making their open data available.”
Eighty-seven percent of non-government respondents said that access to public sector open data “is key to running their organization.”
Seventy-one percent of government respondents agreed that open data initiatives can spark economic development with a significant proportion, 39 percent, saying that open data has led “directly” to economic development in their community.
According to the survey:
Of those who agree open data has led directly to economic development, a large majority (75%) say they have seen the direct benefits in new businesses forming, (72%) a nearly equal large majority has seen an increase in jobs, and (59%) a smaller but still large majority have seen increased tax revenues.
That’s been incredibly important in Los Angeles, according to Nemani. “[W]e consider open data to be a platform for economic development. Los Angeles has a very strong technology and startup ecosystem, and it’s essential to integrate our open data efforts with that growing community.”
Wright said that although open data hasn’t had much of an economic development impact on Prince George’s County because the county’s data portal is still new, “we are hopeful that it does have a long-term positive impact on the county.”
More and more, Glenn said, governments are going to be pressing that economic development message, in addition to the good-government message that often goes hand in hand with open data initiatives.
“The trend that we’re seeing is that you can’t just say ‘I’m doing an open data initiative for transparency sake’ only. If governments want to continue to invest more in their open data initiatives they’re going to be held accountable to being able to measure and make data-driven decisions or making more increased investment in their open data initiatives,” Glenn said. “Being able to point back to direct economic development is a great way not only to build engagement with their constituents and build trust but certainly to also point to hard dollars or numbers as it relates to job creation or increased tax revenue.”