Op-Ed: Data is Inert -- It’s What You Do With It That Counts

Open data can fuel innovation, but only if you first fix your business practices.

In its infancy, the open data movement was mostly about offering catalogs of government data online that concerned citizens and civic activists could download. But now, a wide variety of external stakeholders are using open data to deliver new applications and services. At the same time, governments themselves are harnessing open data to drive better decision-making.

In a relatively short period of time, open data has evolved from serving as fodder for data publishing to fuel for open innovation.

One of the keys to making this transformation truly work, however, is our ability to re-instrument or re-tool underlying business systems and processes so managers can receive open data in consumable forms on a regular, continuous basis in real-time.

A good example of what needs to happen is illustrated by the emergency call system: When a 911 call comes in, it’s usually captured and logged, but to make that data more useful and immediately accessible for developers and public-sector decision-makers, there also needs to be a trigger that makes that information available externally in real-time.

This continuous flow and delivery of government information from inaccessible internal data silos to publicly accessible open data portals should also take place in the areas of permitting and licensing, transportation, education, health care, and economic development.

This approach to open data elevates the role and stature of the developer ecosystem and helps create new businesses, because scores of companies are being launched and built as a result of the real-time availability of government information in modern, easy-to-find, easy-to-use formats including application programming interfaces (APIs).

One possible way to accelerate this important commercial momentum is by creating technology that would notify developers and companies when certain types of relevant government data are released or updated and become available.

The role of citizens has not diminished with the birth of open data 2.0. In fact, citizens may be more important than ever, because they’re combining to form a grass-roots network across the country that pushes governments to release more and more data online. This is how open data is stimulating a civic engagement feedback loop.

Sandra Moscoso is emblematic of this crucial advocacy. By day, she manages open data initiatives for the World Bank; by night, she’s an empowered and enlightened Washington D.C. resident and parent who compels public school districts to disseminate performance data to improve the city's schools.

Consumers matter in this equation, too.

Customer reviews, recommendations and ratings on the Internet have motivated businesses to steadily improve their products and services over the past 20 years.

As they shift additional data online, governments will now have the opportunity to learn what people want, too.

In essence, this boils down to a choice for the public sector between the new self-service e-commerce model -- based on accessibility, efficiency, transparency and accountability -- or the old bank-teller model of inconvenience and poor service.

But it goes well beyond how many hours, or what hours, the Department of Motor Vehicles should be open in order to serve customers best.

Indeed, continuous delivery of open data can help governments measure their effectiveness as they address sweeping social issues like crime, teen pregnancy, poverty and low high school graduation rates.

Even the private sector can participate in this new, action-oriented phase of the open data movement, which is being pioneered by forward-thinking government agencies.

Open data provides the potential for companies to improve their business performance by asking the public or trusted, invited partners outside the enterprise to explore freshly released corporate information. This approach gives corporate executives an entirely new set of eyes, and, perhaps, an entirely new set of insights about their strategy, execution and operations.

UPS, for instance, has begun to voluntarily share its transportation data in an effort to become even more efficient. The company hopes that this will encourage other transportation companies to release their data, so that best practices in the industry can be sharpened and embraced, spawning more innovation.

Data is inert. It’s what we do with it that counts, what we do with it that’s either net positive or net negative. And the latest stage of the open data movement currently underway is proving that data can be a tremendous force for good in both the public and private sectors. 

Kevin Merritt is CEO and Founder, Socrata.