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What Is Open Government and Why Is It Important?

Gov-local gov Open data

March 16, 2017

Reading time: 8 min

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This article provides an introduction to open government and why it's important. It also highlights some best practices for opening up government data so that your project succeeds and provides value to both government and citizens.

Across the world, citizens are standing up to demand greater transparency and accountability from their governments, and governments are listening. Officials are making data public to allow for better public oversight of their activities. But where do officials and IT professionals begin? Launching an open data initiative requires time, effort, and financial resources to ensure it's successful as well as utilized by the public.

This article provides an introduction to open government and why it's important. It also highlights certain  best practices for opening up government data so that your project succeeds and provides value to both government and citizens.

What Is Open Government?

The OECD defines open government as the opening up of government processes, proceedings, documents, and data for public scrutiny and involvement. In 2007, 30 open government advocates gathered in Sebastopol, CA to develop a set of principles for open government. They determined that there are eight principles which should guide open government initiatives, as listed below:

  • All public data should be made available. "Public" data refers to information that isn't subject to valid privacy, security, or privilege limitations.

  • Data is collected at its primary source, and it isn't modified or presented in aggregate.

  • Data is made available in a timely fashion so that it's valuable and useful.

  • Data is accessible to the widest number of users for the widest range of purposes.

  • Data is structured so that it can be processed by a machine.

  • Data is available to anyone, and no one needs to register to access it.

  • Data is available in a non-proprietary format - no one has exclusive control over it.

  • Data is license-free, and not subject to any copyright, patent, trademark, or trade secret regulations. However, reasonable privacy, security, and privilege restrictions are acceptable.

Compliance with these principles is subject to review, meaning that governments must designate a contact person to respond to people trying to use the data. That contact person needs to be available to respond to complaints if the government violates these principles, and an administrative or judicial court must have the authority to review whether the government has applied these principles appropriately.

OpenGovData.org suggests seven additional principles:

  1. Data should be free, and it should be available online.

  2. Data should be made available at a stable internet location for an indefinite period of time, and it should remain in a stable data format for as long as possible.

  3. Data should be trustworthy. To that end, it should be digitally signed or include an attestation of the publication/creation date, its authenticity, and its integrity.

  4. There must be a presumption of openness. That is to say, the government must be proactive about making information public and available.

  5. The government must provide users with enough information for them to determine whether the information is accurate and current.

  6. Data must be safe to open, without executable content that can transmit worms, viruses, and malware.

  7. The government implements suggestions from the public about how to disseminate information.

Why Open Up Government?

There are two major reasons for opening up government: the positive impact it will have on citizens (which includes greater awareness of what the government does, cognizance of how their taxes are spent, and improved civic engagement) , and the benefits that governments can realize (such as increased civic trust in government, greater efficiency, and enhanced delivery of services or systems functions).

A Positive Impact on the Citizenry

On a day-to-day basis, the average citizen uses services offered by some level of government (municipal, state or provincial, or federal), and probably doesn't realize it. When they turn on the radio, they don't realize that a federal communications authority prevents stations from overlapping and other signals from interfering with broadcasts. They take it for granted that a government agency runs public transportation services, ensures that stoplights work and that the roads are in decent condition.

However, open government initiatives have the tendency to increase citizens' awareness of government services. In a 2015 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 20% of Americans stated that they used open government data to find information about student and teacher performance. Seventeen percent said they searched government data sources for hospital or healthcare provider information. Another 7% responded that they monitored contracts between government agencies and outside firms using government services.

In addition, when governments open their data, citizens can see how their taxes are being spent. For example, when President Obama took office at the beginning of 2009, his administration monitored how $840 billion in economic stimulus funding was spent. Members of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board ensured that the government didn't misuse funds, and by the time the agency closed its doors in September 2015, it had recouped, forfeited, or saved a total of $157 million.

When citizens know how governments are spending their taxes, they become more engaged. They see that it's within their best interests to take action to make sure that they receive the services they need. For example, some cities have placed data about calls made to first responders and emergency services on their websites. With this data, neighborhood watches can better protect their communities.

The Benefits of Open Data for Government

In certain cases, open government can increase the levels of trust that citizens have in government. A 2014 study by Swedish researcher Jenny de Fine Licht showed that when the public is involved in decisions such as funding libraries, people feel a greater sense of confidence in elected officials and institutions.

Aside from increasing the levels of trust citizens place in the government, open government initiatives can help governments to run more efficiently. One example comes from Baltimore, MD: in 2000, the mayor at the time implemented a software program that tracked municipal employee absenteeism in real time. Within the first year of the software's implementation, Baltimore saved $13.2 million.

Moreover, governments can use data to enhance the way services are delivered or the way internal systems function. Employees in Bexar County, TX, put data to good use in order to reduce the county's prison population and to shift funds that would have been used to construct a new jail into other projects. Thanks to a database, inmates move faster through the county's justice system so that they spend less time in prison and more time with their families and receiving the help they need.

How to Open Government Data?

how to open government data

Understanding the importance of opening up government data (from perspective of citizens and the government itself) is vital, but it's another, larger step to actually open up the data. Below are steps you can take to start the process and ensure it's successful:

  1. You don't have to open all of your data at once. In fact, the fewer data sets you open, the more manageable the project will be.

  2. Pick a specific topic. Agencies generally have a narrow scope. Again, the narrower the topic, the easier the project will be to manage.

  3. Provide context to help users better understand the data. Relevant information you'll want to include will be a title, keywords, a description, any necessary legal details, license and attribution, geographical coverage, the time period in question, date of publication, last modification, and how often the data is updated.

  4. Structure your data so that it's machine-readable and it's available in standard formats. Those standard formats are CSV, JSON, and GeoJSON. Don't upload PDFs, especially not scans of handwritten documents - computers can't find information within those files.

  5. Even if you want to put your data in the public domain, you'll still need a license for it. The three most common licenses for open data are the open database License (which lets users openly share, modify, and utilize a database while maintaining the same freedoms for others), Public Domain Dedication and License (which is similar to the open database license, only without any restrictions), and the open data Commons Attribution License (which restricts the sharing, modification, and utilization of data).

  6. Put the data online so that it's available through a portal that doesn't require users to register.

  7. Make certain that your data is available. One way to do that is to generate APIs (Application Programming Interfaces). APIs allow users to build apps that utilize your data in real time, and they have the added benefit of letting you track how the data is used.

  8. Publicize the fact that your data is available online for everyone. Social media accounts are an excellent publicity tool.

  9. Update your data as frequently as possible. If it's out of date, it isn't useful. Some open data platforms can collect information from various systems automatically and then publish the results in real time, saving your agency time, effort, and money.

  10. Once you've completed the steps above, it's time to open more data. Remember that this isn't a one-time process; it's an ongoing commitment to transparency and better government.

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