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The Agony and Ecstasy of Open Data

September 7, 2012 |
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In early September, Future Tense— a partnership between New America, Slate magazine, and Arizona State University — helped organize a three-day conference and hackathon in Mexico City focused on open data and open government. Future Tense Researcher Adam Sneed reports on the highlights:

City governments around the world are releasing heaps of data about transit, crime, pollution, education, and more to the public in an attempt to improve public services and encourage new businesses. But local leaders are discovering it takes a lot more than uploading stats to a website to reap the benefits of open data. The major challenge, and the lucrative reward, comes from getting people to use that data - and participate in government in ways they haven’t before.

What does it take to craft a successful open data agenda?  Open data evangelists explored that question at the Ciudad Móvil Conference, a Future Tense event held Thursday in Mexico City. As Mexico City prepares to become the first city in Mexico with an open data agenda, experts from the United States, Mexico, and Argentina gathered at the conference to examine the cutting edge of public data and civic innovation.

Boston and San Francisco are two early success stories in the open data movement. Both cities launched offices to manage city data and use it to drive innovation. And both knew from the start that merely making data accessible wasn’t enough to improve life in the city.

Nigel Jacob, a co-founder of Boston’s office of New Urban Mechanics, says the key to his office’s success came from focusing on partnerships and community engagement. His office, which has grown from two to seven people in the last two years, works closely with university researchers and community members to find out what questions the city’s data can help answer.

In one example, the office worked with a social scientist in Boston who scoured the government’s credit score data in local neighborhoods. In an area with particularly low credit scores, Jacob said the community of predominantly Brazilian immigrants had a high level of financial literacy, but tended not to use banks. Jacob’s office partnered with the scientist and a team at MIT to build apps that help people in this neighborhood record their transactions in a way that can boost their credit scores.

This kind of approach is novel for governments. But with small staffs and limited budgets, these offices can — and should — align themselves more with the start-ups they’re hoping will spring up around access to city data.  

Another example of pioneering efforts to engage citizens:  The Office of New Urban Mechanics and San Francisco’s Office of Civic Innovation both organize hackathons, where developers come together to make applications based on city data. The apps made at hackathons aren’t always completely useful—or completely functional—but the process engages developers by making them think of new ways to use information. Shannon Spanhake, deputy innovation officer for San Francisco, said these events make citizens realize their government has interesting problems to solve, and they prompt governments to realize that citizens can identify and address new dilemmas. When a citizen creates an app that could have a powerful impact on the city, the city’s innovation experts help him build partnerships and turn the idea into a business.

Hackathons are a good deal for governments and citizens alike. By releasing data and encouraging citizens to interact with it, cities harness the expertise of their people. The people working with the data get a chance to have an impact on their city, and the products they create can lead to new businesses and economic opportunities.

So when cities launch new open data initiatives, they need to realize that opening the data to the public is just the first step. The most important work is in making everyone realize just how powerful open data can be.