Yanks Look to Gov Being the Platform for Open Data

by Denise Eisner

Full disclosure: I am a dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada, so any hint of favourtism toward the U.S. approach to open data should be taken with a Memphis-rubbed rib in one hand and a Sam Adams lager in the other.

Open Data is the mantra within government, both here and abroad. In the U.S., government employees, non-profit organizations, developers and community activists are working together on a myriad of data mashups that take rich public data and put it into useful interfaces and onto the platforms people are using. Students with no budgets but seemingly endless spare time are publishing extremely practical applications, while tech start-ups are challenging the notion that data sitting in a dusty archive doesn’t have tremendous value: in fact it can have market value that then translates into new job creation, or what we now call “stimulus.”

The open data fervour reached fever pitch last week at the Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington D.C., where several hundred of the aforementioned groups both from the U.S. and abroad came together to talk about open data, citizen engagement and a slew of related topics. It kicked off with the clarion call by O’Reilly Media’s CEO Tim O’Reilly that “government should think of itself as a platform, to let others build on to deliver additional services to the public.”

With government as “the caretaker for vast stores of information in our national libraries, archives, research laboratories and museums” points out Carl Malamud, founder of Public.Service.Org, those in and outside that conference room should “finish the open gov revolution.” They need open data standards, and need to enforce them. Giving the government’s data to small groups, he says, can turn many small facts into one big truth.

The trouble is that the open data revolution to date has produced a lot of sexy looking government websites, but as Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation notes, not a lot of good data. Data errors and omissions have hobbled many of the U.S. government’s efforts to date. Bloated IT projects with no accountability have undermined efforts to give value to citizens, something that the U.S. government’s CIO is addressing with a deadly serious IT scorecard process that actually halted 30 projects that were in the works and cancelled 12 outright.

What’s the answer? Mr. O’Reilly has it right that government should be the platform, and I would add that the line stops there. Governments should not decide how citizens want their data, but give it freely in formats that can be used across devices and services. ESRI’s president, Jack Dangermond, encouraged government to publish maps as a shared service, one where the data sets are free for anyone to overlay with other data and gain new insights. Developer/blogger Kathy Sierra spoke passionately about creating the killer user, not the killer app. And June Cohen of the powerfully inspiring TED Conferences reached out to the audience to “harness the power and wisdom of crowds.”

David Eaves, the sole Canadian presenter at the Gov 2.0 Summit, stole the show with a fast-paced monologue describing open data successes, all built using available government data. We’ll see David soon at the GTEC conference here in Ottawa as our guest.

As the FCC’s Chairman Julius Genachowski stated, “it’s the public’s data, not ours.”

Denise Eisner is a senior consultant within the Government Service Excellence practice. Follow Denise on Twitter.


Denise Eisner is a senior-level web strategist and communications specialist with a passion for creating enhanced user experiences. As a member of the Government Service Excellence practice, Denise’s experience and specializations include web strategy development, information architecture, web analytics (WebTrends and Google Analytics) and web project management. She has led large-scale content audits, developed performance measurement frameworks, and coordinated site updates to meet Treasury Board policies standards and guidelines. Engaged in the evolving spheres of information technology, corporate communications and media for almost two decades, Denise has transformed business objectives into web strategies and information architectures for corporate and government clients in the U.S. and Canada.


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