Five ways for states to make the most of open data

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Mariko Davidson serves as an Innovation Fellow for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts where she works on all things open data. These opinions are her own. You can follow her @rikohi.

States struggle to define their role in the open data movement. With the exception of some state transportation agencies, states watch their municipalities publish local data, create some neat visualizations and applications, and get credit for being cool and innovative.

States see these successes and want to join the movement. Greater transparency! More efficient government! Innovation! The promise of open data is rich, sexy, and non-partisan. But when a state publishes something like obscure wildlife count data and the community does not engage with it, it can be disappointing.

States should leverage their unique role in government rather than mimic a municipal approach to open data. They must take a different approach to encourage civic engagement, more efficient government, and innovation. Here are few recommendations based on my time as a fellow:

    1. States are a treasure trove of open data. This is still true. When prioritizing what data to publish, focus on the tangible data that impacts the lives of constituents—think aggregating 311 request data from across the state. Mark Headd, former Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia, calls potholes the “gateway drug to civic engagement.”


  • States can open up data sharing with their municipalities—which leads to a conversation on data standards. States can use their unique position to federate and facilitate data sharing with municipalities. This has a few immediate benefits: a) it allows citizens a centralized source to find all levels of data within the state; b) it increases communication between the municipalities and the state; and c) it begins to push a collective dialogue on data standards for better data sharing and usability.



  • States in the US create an open data technology precedent for their towns and municipalities. Intentional or not, the state sets an open data technology standard—so they should leverage this power strategically. When a state selects a technology platform to catalog its data, it incentivizes municipalities and towns within the state to follow its lead. If a state chooses a SaaS solution, it creates a financial barrier to entry for municipalities that want to collaborate. The Federal Government understood this when it moved to the open source solution CKAN. Bonus: open source software is free and embodies the free and transparent ethos of the greater open data movement.



  • States can support municipalities and towns by offering open data as a service. This can be an opportunity to provide support to municipalities and towns that might not have the resources to stand up their own open data site.



  • Finally, states can help facilitate an “innovation pipeline” by providing the data infrastructure and regularly connecting key civic technology actors with government leadership. Over the past few years, the civic technology movement experienced a lot of success in cities with groups like Code for America leading the charge with their local Brigade Chapters. After publishing data and providing the open data infrastructure, states must also engage with the super users and data consumers. States should not shy away from these opportunities. More active state engagement is a crucial element still missing in the civic innovation space in order to collectively create sustainable technology solutions for the communities they serve.


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