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How NOT to Fail With Managing Your City’s Open Data


3D Illustration by Ruixian Made

3D Illustration by Ruixian Made.

Every year more and more municipalities around the world launch various Open Data initiatives in an attempt to align with modern neoliberal ideals of a progressive and transparent city.

For example, The Open Government Partnership launched in 2011 with just 8 participating countries “to make governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens”, now has more than 75 members. Another initiative - What Works Cities - now works with 90 mid-sized American cities to “enhance their use of data and evidence to improve services, inform local decision-making and engage residents.”

And it is clearly not for nothing - there are good reasons why cities should provide Open Data:

  1. Open Data will increase transparency and reduce corruption. While this is a long term game, it is critical to start building an open society and system today.

  2. Open Data will help modernize a municipality's internal mindset. A change in mindset is great for the city leadership and for cities as organizations in case they actually intend to pursue it.

  3. Open Data is great for developing your business eco-system. By releasing reliable datasets around topics such as parking, weather, health, air-pollution, etc., cities can create entire startup eco-systems.

In light of this trend, the future of urban transparency looks bright - more cities and countries releasing data providing a richer base for research and useful insights, data-driven decision making and public control over municipal spending and corruption. Very ambitious indeed, but as in life, the reality on the ground is not quite so simple.

In real life, residents just don’t use it. There is an illustrative example when in 2010 local authorities in UK published all their spending over £500 expecting that such a progressive move would encourage lots of activists to analyze public expenditure and offer innovative and smart solutions for its optimization. But that just never happened - council finance data was viewed around 200 times per month, and the outcome was commensurable with this modest number.

The reason is simple: not so many people are familiar with analysis tools. Looking at a diagram is one thing, but to identify trends and patterns from a massive sets of digits or geospatial data you need to have some specific skills, and in fact it can be possibly done by a relatively small number of professionals. Besides, the number of views and downloads for most of datasets is very low - usually residents just don’t care about statistics on the number of drinking fountains in New York or animal bites in Louisville.

Among those who use open government data successfully are research companies, big business and startups which thus reduce the costs of acquiring necessary data when creating new services, both for commercial and nonprofit reasons. These organizations enjoy the faster TTD (Time to Data), as the data is easily accessible (unlike in the past), but there are still some barriers that don’t let them use Open Data more efficiently to provide more public goods.

There are 4 ideas to keep in mind to overcome those barriers and not fail with Open Data strategy in your city:

  1. Open Data is your democratic back-end infrastructure. Though it’s often confused for a front-end system for citizens, first of all, Open Data should be a system for developers, as the value is delivered through better services rather than by Open Data portal hits.

  2. Open Data should be truly open. According to Open Data Barometer, only 7% of data across 115 countries is fully open, i.e. datasets are available in machine readable formats and published under open license.

  3. Open Data platforms should be built as two-way channels. Municipalities are sharing their data to the community, but most Open Data systems are not planned to reciprocate, receive and collect data from the community, so the cyclic nature of data is missing.

  4. Open Data is a process. It takes time and effort, specifically if you are to balance openness of data with privacy. According to a Carnegie Mellon University Study published in 2000, 87% of Americans are likely to be uniquely identified in a dataset by only ZIP code, gender, and date of birth, let alone more comprehensive information that could be extracted from data sources of 2017.

Data is the basis and the key to any smart city challenge, and potential public benefits of Open Data are pretty obvious. That's why cities should stop the race for the number of open datasets and once again focus on their quality and the real purpose of open government initiatives.

In any case and regardless of the penetration of Open Data into resident’s lives, the fact that cities are starting to treat data as a strategic asset is a bless and a strong basis which will serve cities in the coming years.

#Municipality #MunicipalPlatform #OpenData #SmartCity

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