Local Government Open Data Portals: Are They Worth the Cost?

GovTech Data culture

February 18, 2020

Reading time: 7 min




Local Government Open Data Portals: Are They Worth the Cost? Yes, In Ways That Are Quantifiable and Unquantifiable, Say Data Experts

Think back to the late 1950s when the U.S. highway system was being built. Many cities that didn’t interact with planners and try to end up near the new thoroughfares were relegated to an almost ghost town status within years. Now think about local governments who don’t explore the power data-driven innovation can have on their residents? Where do you think they’ll be in 10 years?

“Irrelevant,” answers Chelsea Collier , founder of DigiCiti.


Data is the new currency

“Data is basically the new currency…,” says Collier. “Where we are moving in this digital age is that everything is becoming more connected, more collaborative, and data is at the heart of all that… if cities aren’t taking advantage of creating a platform for researchers, startups, companies, individuals, their citizens, to basically play on top of that open data, they are not only not able to take advantage of what’s coming, but they are going to put themselves at a disadvantage. They are basically out of the game.

Opening local government data through a user-friendly public portal makes irrefutable good business sense, data experts report. Some of the financial benefits are difficult to quantify, but powerful nonetheless. And local governments that do not open data, experts add, will fall behind as other cities streamline services, are more responsive to residents, and partner with the private sector in using data to make their cities more efficient, attractive to businesses, and livable.


Reducing Labor Costs Through Open Data

The most obvious efficiency for local governments in opening their data is the reduction in labor costs of employees who have historically served as human search engines by finding data for citizens who call or write in. For instance, in the past, employees would help citizens looking for information such as lot lines, zoning information, inspection reports, etc. Without open data portals, an employee would have to track down the information and then respond in writing or by call to a citizen. Allowing citizens and others to access the information themselves on user-friendly open data portals cuts down on labor costs.

Having open data on one user-friendly portal also helps reduce redundancies internally within an organization, says Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

“Data used by multiple agencies (within a jurisdiction) might be stored and processed in multiple locations,” says Castro. “So if you are centralizing access by creating a data portal then you are storing it once and that lowers operational costs.

Castro adds that if agencies within a jurisdiction are responding to different requests, those costs of responding are “borne by the agencies and are not well-documented, but they exist.”

Castro adds that surprising cost savings can arrive once a local government has opened its data in an organized, user-friendly way. He cited a community in Colorado that had been developing costly annual reports for the public for years. Once the jurisdiction opened its data with an easily accessible dashboard, it was able to stop producing annual reports. The public was able to get that information through the portal.


Promoting a Culture of Innovation

Easy access to data can promote a culture of innovation within a local government and the communities they serve, experts add. Researchers at the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative outlined their case for innovative city governance  in an article in Apolitcal.co. In the article, Jorrit de Jong, Fernando Monge, and Adam Hawksbee argued that evidence derived from data is a key element of creating cultures of innovation. They wrote: “Innovative governments use data to better understand challenges, evaluate progress, and drive performance.” The writers cited how employees at the City of Long Beach tackled the city’s illegal dumping problem by performing a detailed data analysis and mapping users’ waste collection service experiences. With this information, the city better understood the underlying issues of the problem and worked to develop a solution.

Open data can foster transparency and make policies more evidence based, experts add.

Jeff Reichman, of January Advisors, a Houston-based data science consulting firm, agrees: “Open data is really important to government accountability, so it is a really easy way for a local government to say this is what we're doing, and this is how we're measuring our progress,” Reichman says.


Encouraging Collaboration With the Private Sector

Reichman adds that open data aids the development of apps that can benefit local citizens and help city services be used to their full potential.

“Open data is also a platform for other applications to use,” says Reichman. “For example, in Houston, there is a software developer who built Rollout! , a mobile application that reminds you about recycling day, heavy trash day, and so on. As soon as you load the app, it looks up your location and checks it against an open dataset of collection schedules and zones provided by the City of Houston. This is a free app used by thousands of people every week. And it depends entirely on the city's commitment to open data.”

Open data supplied by local governments is used by a broad range of companies and entrepreneurs in the private sector to develop apps and products that benefit citizens. For instance, traffic flow and parking data can be used by businesses looking to relocate and air quality data might be of use to a business looking to target customers for allergen testing. The list goes on.

“Those cities that learn how to collaborate with the private sector become marketplaces for the new, collaborative, digitized way we are moving and those cities that don’t are the ones …that will quickly become irrelevant,” says Collier, of DigiCiti.

“The corporate sector is asking – ‘where are the cities that are innovating?’ They are going to the cities where open data is a priority,” Collier adds.


Not opening data leads to missed opportunities

Castro believes that governments that do not open their data are “missing opportunities.”

“I think it’s a symptom of a larger failure to digitize across government,” Castro says. “If they are falling behind in open data, they are probably falling behind in other areas as well.”

Collier also cautions that simply opening data is not enough. The data itself has to be organized with the specific needs of the local citizens in mind.

“Just having a big vast array of open data is not quite good enough,” says Collier. “Cities have to do the work and look at what problems they are solving, otherwise what you have is a big unwieldy mess of data that no one can optimize.

“It’s really important for cities to understand –‘These are our challenges and this is what our people want to know in order for us to be transparent.’ Cities then have to organize that data accordingly.”


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