Op-Ed: Open Data Is Re-Defining Government in the 21st Century


The emerging digital collaboration between the public sector and entrepreneurs could transform the economy.

Perhaps it’s the constrained fiscal reality, punctuated by threats of government shut-downs. Or maybe it’s the ideological wars in Washington, playing out most recently in the battle over privacy and security sparked by revelations about the PRISM surveillance program. Whatever the reasons, the public sector in the 21st century gets a bad rap. As Tim O’Reilly, the founder of O’Reilly Media, has said, government is seen by legions of citizens from coast to coast as a bloated and inefficient ATM that takes in taxes and delivers mediocre services in return. Even a muscular liberal like Paul Krugman of The New York Times calls the federal bureaucracy “an insurance company with an army.”

But a new movement, spurred by digital and social activism, is taking root to renovate and redefine the public sector.

This movement is based on democratizing the vast treasure trove of data that governments have accumulated over the years, transparently releasing it so citizens and companies can drive meaningful change and solve problems that government, on its own, cannot solve.

Opening up data, says Todd Park, the U.S Chief Technology Officer, “means taking data that is sitting in the vaults of the government, that the taxpayers have already paid for, and jujitsuing it into the public domain as machine-readable fuel for entrepreneurship and innovation.”

This emerging digital collaboration between the public sector and scores of entrepreneurs across the nation has the potential to profoundly transform the role of government. Indeed, instead of being an ATM, as O’Reilly observes, it’s now an accelerator that helps inspire and build new businesses that bring fresh ideas, programs and initiatives to the public.

There are several striking examples of new companies using open government data to create programs that benefit our communities.

OPower, for example, leverages government data on energy use, weather, and appliance efficiency to give customers personalized advice on how to save on their energy bills. Employing over 250 people, OPower has helped residential customers save more than 1.4 terawatt hours of electricity (enough to power all of the homes in a small city for a year) and over $165 million on their power bills.

BillGuard uses the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s new credit card complaint database to help find deceptive, erroneous, and fraudulent charges on users’ credit and debit card bills. BillGuard’s free software alerts consumers whenever a charge on their bill has been reported by others as fraudulent and then assists them in getting their money back. 

And iTriage has harnessed downloadable information from the Department of Health and Human Services to develop a mobile application that has helped eight million people find the best local doctors and hospitals that meet their needs. Founded by two emergency-room doctors in 2008, the company has approximately 90 employees, over 600 hospital partners and thousands of physicians and urgent care partners who all are working to help provide more information and better care to consumers.

The ‘Micro-Data Economy’

This isn’t the first time businesses have generated growth and prosperity by accessing open government data.

In the 1970’s, for instance, the release of data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration changed scores of industries and even created a new one -- the weather industry. This was followed by the release of GPS data in the 1990’s, which gave citizens location services now considered essential by many.

As Beth Blauer, my colleague at Socrata, points out, we’re now living in the “Micro-Data Economy,” and the next wave of innovation and innovative businesses will flow out of thousands of micro datasets released by the public sector: crimes in our neighborhoods; real-time bus locations; restaurant inspections; and permit and license applications, to name just a few.

The executive branch of the federal government is a major player in the ongoing open-data movement.

One of the White House’s key digital objectives is to “unlock the power of government data to spur innovation across our nation and improve the quality of services for the American people.”

To help achieve this ambitious goal, the Obama Administration is opening up new government data sets; launching new prizes and challenges to spur innovative use of data; and showcasing entrepreneurs who are developing new apps and services fueled by open data.

Says Ian Kalin, a Presidential Innovation Fellow who has been immersed in the Obama Administration’s open data efforts: “This is all about the government releasing data at the wholesale level so that entrepreneurs can help provide retail services that will spur economic growth, create jobs, and improve the quality of life for millions of Americans.”  

Cities and states are also setting the tone and agenda for the move to open data in the public sector today.

New York City, for instance, has passed landmark open data legislation designed to move public information from the hands of city officials to the public. The broader access to data is saving New York millions of dollars. Mayor Bloomberg’s “geek squad” of data crunchers already has solved complicated and expensive problems, like tracking down damaged trees after Hurricane Sandy or mapping which restaurants dump harmful cooking grease into city sewers.

Meanwhile, New York’s annual BigApps competition has citizens creating apps with public data, like Work+, which finds the nearest coffee shop with Wi-Fi. This culture of citizen-made apps has proved unexpectedly cost-effective. For example, the Metropolitan Transit Authority hired a local firm to produce an app showing real-time bus arrival times after it determined that in-house production would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The final price tag? Less than $1 million.

Meanwhile, Chicago also is driving innovation with open data. It recently placed first in the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge, based on its proposal to build the first open source, predictive analytics platform. When completed, it will aggregate information in a single place to help leaders make smarter, faster decisions and prevent problems before they develop.

Chicago is making data available around persistent problems and challenging citizens to find solutions. Ever wonder where a snowplow is during a snowstorm? There is an app for that, which means fewer calls to the city. Need to check the status of 311 service requests? The most recent data is delivered to citizens’ mobile devices, along with public parking availability, bike maps, crime information, and more.

Major universities have seen data’s potential to transform cities and are dedicating resources to it, such as University of Chicago’s Computational Urban Sciences Center, MIT’s Civic Data Design Project, and New York University’s Center for Urban Science & Progress.

States are getting in on the action too. Maryland has rolled out StateStat, a performance measurement and management tool based on open data. StateStat is credited with helping Maryland save millions of dollars on prison costs while raising public school test scores to the highest level in the nation four years in a row.

As a software entrepreneur, I see open data as the transformation of governments from monolithic service providers to open innovation platforms, fueled by data. This shift may hold the answers to some age-old problems in government, like chronic inefficiency and a citizen experience that’s out of step with the modern consumer era.

“This is the right way to frame the question of Government 2.0,” explains O’Reilly, a leading open data advocate. “How does government become an open platform that allows people inside and outside government to innovate? How do you design a system in which all of the outcomes aren’t specified beforehand, but, instead, evolve through interactions between government and its citizens, as a service provider enabling its user community?”

The answers to these questions are still taking shape; but one thing we do know is that the strategic use of data is clearly re-defining government’s role in the 21st century.

Kevin Merritt is the founder and CEO of Socrata, a Seattle-based cloud software company focused exclusively on democratizing access to government data.