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How Open Data Can Revolutionize a Society in Crisis

Director of the Governance Lab and Professor of Engineering at New York University

We are undoubtedly living in the middle of an unfolding open data revolution. But open data, as a new tool for governance, is about much more than transparency for its own sake.

Open government data—namely publishing whole classes of information collected by government in their entirety, such as spending records, visitor logs, and measures of hospital infection rates—is enabling a diverse set of stakeholders, including citizens, government agencies, businesses and others, to make informed decisions about the behind-the-scenes processes that govern their daily lives.

A Recent History of Open Data

On his first day in office in 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government. The memorandum declares that “[i]nformation maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset,” and called for the use of “new technologies to put information about [agency] operations and decisions online and [to make it] readily available to the public.”

In parallel to the adoption of an open data policy in the United States, seventy-five countries since 2011 have signed on to the Open Government Partnership Declaration. The declaration, which copies the U.S. framework, calls for governments to commit to “pro-actively provide high-value information, including raw data, in a timely manner, in formats that the public can easily locate, understand and use, and in formats that facilitate reuse.”

Sixteen countries (and 28 states and cities) have also adopted the International Open Data Charter, which goes further by calling for making government data open in digital formats by default and for investing in the creation of a culture of openness. Over 491 partners, government and non-government related, have signed the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition statement supporting “proactive sharing of open data to make information about agriculture and nutrition available, accessible and usable to deal with the urgent challenge of ensuring world food security.”

From Data to Action: The Impact of Open Data

The impacts of opening data are as myriad as the analytical uses of data. Open data sometimes achieves greater government accountability. In the United States, at the federal level, open data facilitated the creation of USASpending.gov, a set of online tools for exploring the federal budget. At the local level, open data drives various “open checkbook” websites; in Austria, for example, over eight hundred municipalities have made their spending data more transparent and easy to visualize online.

Opening local government data about public works in Zanesville, Ohio revealed a fifty-year pattern of discriminatory water service provision. While access to clean water from the City of Zanesville water line spread throughout the rest of Muskingum County, residents of the predominantly African-American area of Zanesville, Ohio were only able to use contaminated rainwater or to drive to the nearest water tower and truck water back to their homes. Opening the data laid the truth bare and led to a successful civil rights lawsuit against Zanesville in 2008.

Open data enables the creation of tools to improve consumer choice and citizen decision-making in the marketplace.

Although government transparency is important, the potential impact of open data is broader. Open data can have an impact on the accountability of private organizations and institutions. For example, several states are moving to release data collected on doctors about their opioid pain medication prescribing patterns. By showing doctors their own practices in comparison to those of other doctors, open data can change the behavior of less responsible prescribers. Arizona is already showing a ten percent reduction in opiate prescriptions and a four percent reduction in overdose deaths in those counties that used open data in this fashion, compared to counties that did not.

Open data also enables the creation of tools to improve consumer choice and citizen decision-making in the marketplace. Government-mandated labels that have given new-car buyers information on estimated miles-per-gallon for years were recently redesigned to make this information even more transparent and useful to consumers. And data collected by the government from universities has been transformed by the Department of Education into a calculator—the College Scorecard—to help parents and students make more informed financial decisions about their college education.

Sometimes the benefits of open data ripple out beyond the immediate motivations for disclosure. For instance, while publishing government contracts can boost public integrity, it can also catalyze greater business competition and entrepreneurship. Think of the wealth and jobs created by government’s release of both weather data and geo-locational data, which enabled weather apps and GPS devices, respectively. The Open Data Institute notes that the global market for open data could be as high as $5 trillion. Now, thousands of companies worldwide use open government data as a core business asset.

Forget Politics, Open Data is about Governing Well

These myriad open data success stories, however, depend on the political will to be transparent and collaborative. There is a looming risk that governments will only post what is expedient and noncontroversial while seeking recognition for their proactive disclosure—a practice increasingly referred to as “open-washing.” Governments of all political stripes refuse to disclose data when they should. The data to be found on government websites is not always the information most in demand by journalists, activists, and researchers.

Especially as political administrations turnover, there is a risk that change will result in a failure to collect and publish important data. These practices will be subject to the vagaries of politics.  

The genie should not, however, be put back in the bottle.

Open data appeals to both right and left politically: the former sees open data as a pathway to smaller, more efficient government and the latter sees open data as a tool to pursue more effective social programs. The bipartisan interest in evidence-based approaches to governing should fuel greater demand for access to administrative information of all kinds—including the data that agencies collect about companies, workplaces, the environment, and the world beyond government.

Government data should be open in part because of the ill-effects of secrecy, but also because taxpayers have paid for the collection of this data by government in its role as regulator and researcher.

It is a pragmatic tool to make government and companies more accountable at solving social problems and to help communities make better informed buying decisions. It helps create jobs and generate entrepreneurship. Perhaps of paramount importance, open data can advance civil rights and help us to govern more legitimately and effectively.

Beth Simone Noveck

Director of the Governance Lab and Professor of Engineering at New York University

Beth Simone Noveck directs the Governance Lab and its MacArthur Research Network on Opening Governance. She is the Jerry M. Hultin Global Network professor at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, and a visiting professor of Law at the Yale Law School. She served in the White House as the first United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer and director of the White House Open Government Initiative from 2009 to 2011. She is the author of Smart Citizens, Smarter State: The Technologies of Expertise and the Future of Governing. 

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