Open data is transforming governments — and the areas they serve


Written by

Tim Marsh is director of industry solutions at Acquia

Austin, Honolulu, Chicago, and Los Angeles are all very different in terms of geography, climate, and population. But there’s one thing that each of these cities has in common: Each is a member of the growing list of American cities with open data policies.

These areas, along with others, have set forth mandates that require government data to be open and available to citizens. Many cities have used open source technology to build portals that provide easy access to a wide swath of data from information about city finances to maps of buildings and greenways. Others are benefitting from civic organizations like OpenOakland, which is striving to provide Oakland, Calif., residents with access to a variety of data, including information on city budgets, public meetings and more.

This commitment to open data is transforming governments — but, more importantly, it’s also transforming the areas they serve.

Governments Armed with Agility

Open data further pronounces the need for agility. Agencies must be able to store large amounts of data, but they must also be able to make that data available in near real-time. For example, zoning maps must be kept up-to-date and readily available so that prospective developers have the information they need when they need it. Likewise, citizens may wish to have access to the previous day’s police reports or current information pertaining to voting districts, which can often change. This does not take into account the fact that, since citizens now have access to government data, they also have the ability to request changes to it at their leisure.

Over the past few years, agencies have taken strides to become more agile through cloud and open source technology, and open data is pushing these efforts even further. Cloud and open source solutions are good building blocks for open data initiatives because they allow organizations to build their own customizable solutions to suit their unique needs. They also allow easy storage and access to data wherever and whenever it might be needed.

In this sense, the open data movement is not only dictating the way agencies manage data but their own IT strategies, as well. In the process, it’s helping them become more responsive and build for the future.

Citizens Armed with Knowledge

This responsiveness is allowing citizens based in localities with open data initiatives to be able to easily find data that helps arm them with knowledge of their area. Depending on how agencies set up their portals, citizens may no longer have to go to different sites to be able to find what they need. They may simply go to the portal and be able to discover details on government, finance, urban planning and much more.

They may even be able to discover data they did not even realize they had access to. For example, residents in Austin can get data on everything from bike routes to restaurant inspection scores and maps of dangerous dogs. Austin’s open data initiative is a prime example of information on anything and everything, from the vital to the mundane, being accessible.

As evidenced by Austin’s efforts, open data has the potential to provide municipalities and their citizens with new and exciting ways to connect and share information. Over the next couple of years, we’ll begin to see more detailed and useful information become readily available. As this happens and transparency becomes the norm, state and local agencies and their citizens will be able to enjoy the benefits of truly open governments.