Government CIOs Strive to Embrace ‘Open Data’

By Michael Vizard  |  Posted 12-06-2012

Government CIOs Strive to Embrace 'Open Data'

By Michael Vizard

As cities begin to embrace open data as a way to provide better services more efficiently, CIOs who work for these governments are wrestling with the challenges and opportunities associated with accomplishing that via the convergence of big data, mobile computing, social networking and advanced analytics.

Speaking at an SAP Urban Matters/Smart Cities event, CIOs from Boston and Edmonton, Alberta said while both cities are making a major effort to share data sets with citizens, businesses and researchers, they are only getting started when it comes to big data. In fact, a major challenge is getting all their data into a form that is usable by third parties.

“We’re pretty much just starting to scratch the surface when it comes to big data,” says Boston CIO Bill Oates. “The more immediate opportunity for us may be to just connect to all the external sources of big data that are already out there.”

“A lot of cities still have their records in paper form,” adds Theresa Pardo, director of the Center for Technology in Government at the University of Albany, State University of New York. “They still need to create a real data management strategy.”

Despite the IT challenges, it’s clear that turning back is not an option. A new report, “The Dynamics of Opening Government Data,” released by the Center for Technology in Government says that while governments need to better understand the context and dynamics of how the data they make available is being used, there is a clear opportunity to make government data more useful than ever before.

Ultimately, in an era in which roughly 600 cities are expected to dominate the world economy, the future of any given city will be closely tied to how successful a city can analyze and use data to provide services that better meet the needs of its citizens. As a result, Edmonton CIO Chris Moore says his city, as part of a 30-year digital modernization plan, has thus far released 257 data sets that he hopes the city and others will use to deliver new applications. “There’s a whole social revolution happening,” says Moore. “We’re trying to keep pace with other cities, particularly on the West Coast of the U.S. I know, for instance, San Francisco has released only 250 sets of data.”

While some cities have robust data management frameworks, Bruce Katz, vice president at The Brookings Institution, says the real problem is the quality of the data that most governments collect is suspect. “Most of the data that governments have is not first class,” he says.

While the goal is to integrate more data to make better decisions, most cities are still struggling to get data online, says Katz. The next level of maturity is to leverage that data to improve the city’s economic position. Cities at the forefront of the open data movement are making their assets transparent as part of the mobile application revolution, which is taking place across society as whole, says Katz.

Ultimately, Katz says cities at the vanguard of this trend will not try to replicate Silicon Valley, but will concentrate on making the best 21st century version of what makes them unique as a place to work and live. The end result, says Katz, is that successful cities will be more “globally fluent” in that they will develop established relationships with major trading partners regardless of national borders. “Cities are a lot more pragmatic than state or national governments,” says Katz. “In some cities it’s even hard to tell who is a Republican or Democrat.”

Government CIOs Strive to Embrace ‘Open Data’

Albany’s Pardo credits the Obama administration for making open data a priority. Boston’s Oates says that while open data is an important government strategy, it’s not about the data but the opportunities generated. To that end, Boston has created an Office of New Urban Mechanics that is chartered to pursue innovative projects based on city-owned data.

“We want to publish data sets that matter,” says Oates. “We want to create real value for researchers, businesses or any watchdog agencies that want to monitor key performance indicators.”

Edmonton’s Moore says the city’s primary motive is not to create a digital economy around its data, but that Edmonton wants to support different ecosystems that will evolve based on its data.

Ultimately, Moore and Oates believe open data is about engaging and empowering citizens. The thing to be careful about, says Oates, is ensuring that the input being provided by digitally literate citizens doesn’t end up creating a digital divide in which the goals of one constituency start to monopolize city services that the expense of other constituencies.

“It’s a different form of the digital divide,” says Oates. “But one of the good things about big data is that it will help us not only figure out who is communicating with us, but just as importantly who is not.”