“‘Open Data, proactively disclosing City data, is the foundation of Open Government, is consistent with citizens’ right to public information’ and has benefits to government service delivery.” City of Austin, TX, RESOLUTION NO. 20111208-074, Dec. 8, 2011.
Today is Open Data Day, and it’s a big deal. Open data is the pouring of information from dusty government clerical shelves out onto the information superhighway. It’s part transparency and part relevancy. Each day, your government at a local, state and national level collect information. I’m not talking about a nefarious big brother. I mean the sometimes boring, sometimes tedious logging of things like potholes, traffic accidents or dangerous dogs. Computers allowed this information to move from ledgers into databases. Government analysts could dig through the files to find the most dangerous intersections or offer insight into how economic policy was affecting an entire industry. Open data is the next step forward. It’s the idea of hosting these databases online so everyone in the world can look it over. The internet collective gets a chance to dissect the information and we as a society get a more informed understanding of both the government and our world.
Want to go to a farmer’s market, but not sure where to find one? Worried that a web site won’t have the most updated information? Frustrated at the thought of looking at a list of locations and guessing which is the easiest commute? Open data can fix that.
New York state’s open data page publishes a list with the most current list of every farmer’s market in the state, click on the “visualize” button and…
(Created with Data.NY.Gov’s toolset, Data set: https://data.ny.gov/Economic-Development/map-of-farmers-market/x6ae-6e95)
New York City’s open data tells me the Lower East Side gets more foot traffic than Central Harlem, but not as much as Chinatown.
(Created by NYC.GOV, Data set: http://maps.nyc.gov/businessatlas/)
Austin, Tx., mapped out every house with a reported “dangerous dog” on a map.
(Created with Data.AustinTexas.gov’s toolset, Data set: https://data.austintexas.gov/Public-Safety/Map-of-Declared-Dangerous-Dogs/ri75-pahg)
Denver shows you every traffic accident for the past five years.
(Map displaying last 1,000 accident reports created with Google Fusion Tables. Data set: http://data.denvergov.org/dataset/city-and-county-of-denver-traffic-accidents)
Those are just a few simple examples of the information these governments put at our fingertips. Governments around the world share hundreds of raw data sets and visualized or contextualized data as part of open data initiatives. This brings the vast collections of information governments would make available by request, or that might be accessible in microfiche files in the clerk’s office into digital files that anyone, anywhere, anytime can access. A google search for more visualizations shows a sampling of what is being done with this influx of information. Click the image to see more.
(Screen shot of a google image search, “open data visualization”)
The five cities with the most open data sets (population rank):
The federal government and many cities have embraced the idea of open data. Some have passed resolutions proclaiming their commitment to open data like the City of Austin’s resolution quoted at the top, but not all cities have shown the same enthusiasm. Below is a map with 50 of the largest cities color coded to indicate how many open data sets they offer. If you click on the city you’ll see a link to their collection. (Note: a larger version of the map as a single page can be found here)
(Created with Google Fusion Tables)
Many of the largest cities aren’t leaders in open data. This chart tracking the number of open data sets against the population rank of a city shows there’s an open data effort growing in the second tier group of cities in the mid 20s by population rank.
It’s a big deal
“Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effusiveness in government,” President Barrack Obama, Jan. 21, 2009
When I think about open data there isn’t a single benefit I can rattle off as the reason why I want my government to embrace it. The tools it provides can be useful, but the real significance is what it says about a government embracing the idea of sharing information with its citizens. The city sees citizens, both locally and globally, as partners to make things better. It allows us to be better informed of events (crime, accidents, farmers markets, foot/car traffic), and lets our conversation about those events begin with a smarter first question. The question isn’t IF a street was plowed (that’s updated live), but WHY it took so long. These automated computer systems feeding online databases let us see and display what’s going on. It challenges us to find more useful ways to visualize the information and to put the knowledge to use in our personal or professional lives. For decades this kind of information would sit in a clerk’s office, and an inquiring reporter or shrewd businessperson might walk in and dig into the files. Now, with open data, it’s in our hands and we should celebrate the governments that have made it a priority.
Happy Open Data Day.
For more information on Open Data Day, visit http://opendataday.org/
Open Data Day is a gathering of citizens in cities around the world to write applications, liberate data, create visualizations and publish analyses using open public data to show support for and encourage the adoption open data policies by the world’s local, regional and national governments.