I really enjoyed having a quick lunch with some of my co-presenters after our lightning talks over the past weekend at the National League of Cities Congress (“Engaging Residents in Solutions: Using Data and Technology to Improve Local Government.”)
At lunch, I confessed that I really don’t agree with the oft-cited recommendations that the first place to start with open data is for the local government to adopt an open data policy. I’m an operations guy. From my perspective, we already have so many laws about open records. Why do we need a specific policy to enable open data, which is simply the automation of open records? Do we need a policy every time we automate something? That could get pretty ugly.
Most agreed that an open data policy isn’t always needed. But (to summarize the discussion), open data policies can be needed for any of the following reasons:
- To help city staff understand that open data is specifically a goal of the governing board
- To make it clear to the community why city staff is participating in open data efforts
- In the absence of a clear champion for open data, to present a rallying cry for city staff, the community, and elected officials
This seems reasonable, and even apolitical. There could be other reasons, of course. (Feel free to leave other examples in the comments!)
I also learned that, despite open data sometimes being perceived as a liberal-versus-conservative issue, there are plenty of Democrat and Republican champions of open data.
There do seem to be a lot more vocal liberal leaning advocates of open data. But Jason Hare, another apolitical open data advocate, has had some positive interactions with the Republican administration of North Carolina: he is “hopeful that this administration will recognize state government data is a strategic asset and belongs to the citizens of North Carolina.”
From an operational and internal staff standpoint, TL Cox, the CIO for Tulsa, OK, drily noted that no matter what the political affiliation, as soon as open data afficionados walk into a room of elected officials and start using technical terms like “APIs”, you’ve already lost the battle.
We do ourselves no favors when we fail to customize the message to the audience. And, as bad as it is to get political, it’s just as bad to get overly technical when we’re explaining the benefits.
Whatever the political stripe, let’s focus on the pragmatics — which includes good communications of the value proposition — of serving the people who put their trust in us.
Open-data-for-open-data’s-sake bores me.
When you can tell me that open data helped a local entrepreneur launch a better printed map for tourists, that excites me.*
When you can tell me that open data helped a firefighter have more time in the day to do her job, and concentrate on training that could save her life, instead of manually responding to commercial insurance information requests, that excites me.*
We need more of that, no matter what your political stripe.
* Both are true outcomes of open data initiatives, by the way.