Open Data Initiatives for Local Governments

Open Data Initiatives for Local Governments

By Scott Primeau, OpenColorado president

Open DataAn open government is a government that is transparent, participatory, and collaborative. Many motivated organizations, government leaders, and citizens are working to build and support these fundamental ideals.

Transparency involves sharing information, data, and decisions that governments make and hold. Participation means hearing and implementing ideas from many kinds of people and organizations. Collaboration means engaging in ongoing conversations with governments and the public and working together to solve problems. 

In 2009, President Barack Obama released the Open Government Directive, which laid out plans to make the federal government more transparent, participatory, and collaborative. In 2011, a group of public and private sector activists, led by members of OpenColorado, published the Model Local Open Government Directive, a template that any local government can adapt to begin implementing open government practices.  

The model directive and other efforts from open government advocates have inspired the adoption of various open government ordinances, plans, and activities across the country, from Raleigh to Tucson, Chicago to San Francisco, and many more in between. Open government efforts also are growing in many cities across Colorado, notably Arvada, Boulder, Colorado Springs, Denver, and Longmont.

Promoting open data is becoming one of the primary open government activities. Open data is public data in a format that can be retrieved, downloaded, indexed, sorted, searched, and reused by commonly used web applications and commonly used software. 

Open data includes crime, health, transportation, budget, city planning, GIS, education, and many other types of information. This is information that governments collect from residents and businesses, and through operations and services. With the exception of personally identifiable information and some other private information, this information is public record.

Until recently, much of the information was stored behind government firewalls. With technological developments (Google Maps, smartphones, etc.) and more public demand for up-to-date, accurate information, governments have started making more of the information publicly accessible.

Open data provides benefits to both local governments and citizens. Sharing data creates many opportunities for transparency, collaboration, community building, and economic development. 

Websites, such as Weather.com and Zillow, use public records to create valuable services. 

Publishing budget information builds accountability and can help uncover errors. For example, investigating open data related to charitable organizations helped the Canada Revenue Agency uncover $3.2 billion in fraudulent charitable tax filings. 

The City of Memphis has used open crime data and predictive analytics technology to identify areas at high risk of violent crime and thus ensure that resources are applied where they are needed most. 

Providing open data also creates other, intangible benefits, such as building public trust and enabling innovation. 

Open data is a vital piece of civic innovation. It is the foundation for many new services and applications being developed around Colorado. Hack-a-thons have become a common method of rapidly creating those services and applications. At a hack-a-thon, computer programmers, government staff, private sector businesses, journalists, academics, and other members of the public brainstorm ideas, form teams, and build new applications over two or three days. Behind those efforts is the open data that local governments provide. Pairing data with problem solvers creates solutions.

Municipalities around Colorado have caught the hack-a-thon enthusiasm and have held several events in the past 18 months. Hack-a-thons have been held multiple times in Denver, Boulder, and Longmont. 

Multiple groups have formed to meet regularly to build and refine apps created from open data. At a recent online hack-a-thon involving developers from around the world, a team began working on an app that will provide immediate bus stop locations, routes, and arrival times based on a smartphone user’s location and transit data. 

In a more traditional sense, the City of Denver recently launched a detailed, interactive online financial transparency site, Transparent Denver. That site gives access to budget, contract, and property records.

The barriers to sharing data are coming down. When OpenColorado formed three years ago, one of the biggest questions around open data was “Why?” Three years later, the question is “How?”

The benefits of open government, and specifically open data, are revealing themselves. Whether it is attending open government events such as CityCamp Colorado or Hack4Colorado, hosting events, or launching new services, interest and participation are growing. 

One of the challenges to realizing the benefits of open data is the need for technology infrastructure. Publishing data requires effort to maintain the accuracy and relevancy of the information, as well as to ensure that private information is not shared. Then, the data needs to be stored somewhere and made accessible.

To alleviate some of the technology needs, OpenColorado created a free, easy-to-use, centralized data catalog for governments and other organizations to publish data. Through data.opencolorado.org, an organization can upload data sets or link to existing data on the its own servers. Doing so creates a single source for citizens to find information from many local governments.

Boulder, Denver, Longmont, Pueblo County, the Denver Regional Council of Governments, and other jurisdictions already are sharing data through OpenColorado. More groups join regularly, and they continue to add data frequently. 

The OpenColorado data catalog has been utilized in several hacking events and is a national leader in open data efforts. It is one of the only open data websites that include data from multiple jurisdictions.

Open government is creating many opportunities. Open data is one of the most visible open government efforts, but local governments can create many more forms of transparency, participation, and collaboration. Fundamentally, open government is about making government services more efficient and improving the lives of citizens.

Open government brings citizens into government processes and gives citizens the information and tools they need to participate effectively. Together, local governments and citizens will be able to move forward and build better communities.

This article first appeared in the February 2014 issue of Colorado Municipalities. This and other back issues can be viewed online by members who are logged into the site.