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Technology Trends: Open Data - Executive Leadership Articles

Technology Trends: Open Data

Executive Leadership Articles

Technology Trends: Open Data

If for some reason you needed to know how much money the city of Burlington, Vermont is spending this fiscal year on fire departments, and how that compares to what it’s spending on parks and recreation, the answer is just a few mouseclicks away. Similarly, you can easily know how much the city of Redmond, Washington spent cleaning uniforms in 2012, or how many cemeteries there are in Strathcona County (Alberta), or where the emergency warning sirens are on the island of Oahu. And if you like, you can adopt one of those sirens and informally name it whatever you want, if you commit to listening for your siren on the scheduled testing dates.

It’s all because of Open Data, a movement that, at some level, 40 of 50 U.S. states are participating in, plus 44 U.S. cities and counties, 45 other countries, and 163 out-of-U.S. regions. Governments at every level are making datasets available online for no charge, in standard, easily accessible formats, and the data is not limited to textual content: in addition to columns of numbers, data includes maps, charts, and other forms of information.

Open data is the ideology that embraces the free distribution and availability of data without restriction on access or control. While an entity might profit from the manipulation, organization, or interpretation of the data, the data itself remains free.

Much of this data has always been available, but citizens had to formally request it, often traveling long distances to fill out forms, wait for some government worker to assemble it, and pay ten cents per page for photocopies. This is data that belongs to the citizenry, and fewer barriers to information mean more civic awareness and involvement, among other benefits to the public. The Open Data movement aims to cut much of the bureaucratic control out of the equation and offer it to anyone who wants it.

Data may be downloaded for manipulation by the receiver, or in many cases it may be sorted and filtered with a web interface. Some of the web interfaces include clickable apps meant to present some data for specific purposes, as in the case of Oahu’s emergency sirens, which are represented by icons on a map, colored to indicate which sirens have been adopted and which are still available.

A variety of licenses accompanies the data, expressing the terms under which users may receive it, usually some iteration of share-alike, free-to-modify, attribution agreements employed in the Open Source and Creative Commons realms.

Cities across America participate in annual hack-a-thons, gatherings where citizens discuss, create, and launch application programs for the available data, such as bicycle rack locators based on a user’s geolocation, or district-delineated maps showing how many votes candidates received in the last election and how much campaign money candidates raised in those neighborhoods.

There are drawbacks, of course. Despite standardized formatting, the enormity of the data can be a barrier if users don’t know how to filter search results. Additionally, data without context or explanation is left for the user to interpret or misinterpret. The data may reveal what the lifeguard at the neighborhood pool is paid, a figure that might have community members up in arms if they don’t know how similarly trained lifeguards are paid in other communities of the same size and makeup.

Many municipalities’ Open Data websites are in their infancies, and many of their data categories are still empty. Websites often have links for people requesting specific datasets, so it’s clear that a lot of work remains to be done in getting the data out to the public.

Developers are only beginning to explore this new world of freely available data in large quantities, and opportunities for participating in the liberation and application of the data abound even in the most forward-thinking communities that have gotten an early jump. This abundance of data means nearly limitless possibilities for identifying niche interests and developing specific apps for the public’s benefit, or for the benefit of you and your company.


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