3 reasons not to surreptitiously freak out and thwart advances toward open data

As Northeast Ohio edges closer to more systemic support for and applications of open, transparent and shared data, we have been asking ourselves and others: How do we do this? How do we actually edge forward?

And yet, there’s a question to ask before answering even that question. This preliminary question is, Why are we asking that question – about the “how” – in the first place?

We ask the question about the “how” because in a community where there are no common policies, implementation plans, or standards, the undertaking to edge forward is daunting. How do we know it’s daunting? Because Northeast Ohio is replete with brains and dollars to make things happen if and when a value is placed on that thing happening, and the argument for placing a value on even the concepts of open and transparent, to the extent expected of competitive 21st Century communities, is only now attracting a critical mass of interest (not necessarily actors, yet, but we will get there). And while open data isn’t just for regions with more than 500,000 people anymore, the opportunity is most present in regions under that threshold. Possibly more so since open data enables data sharing and data sharing enables efficiencies not otherwise recognizable but particularly appreciated in smaller budgets.

So this is one reason OpenNEO was created: to make the argument that there is a value worth tapping that derives directly from accepting and implementing open and transparent data policies and practices. We also want to show how to back up this argument and we want to foster collaboration among people and organizations curious about, persuaded by and moved to act on behalf of this argument.

Now, a lot of people will tell you not to offer a disclaimer before you are about to make an assertion, because the disclaimer will have the effect of weakening your assertion before you’ve had a chance to assert it. Generally speaking, I’ve found this to be true and a good rule to follow.

However, when it comes to talking open and transparent data – in the service of advancing policy, practice and use – it’s not uncommon for people to freak out. Sometimes, the freak outs are of the best kind: you find yourself in conversation with people who not only know what you’re talking about but they’ve been waiting for someone to talk with them about it.

But there’s also the chance that people will freak out because they 1) don’t know what we’re talking about 2) don’t understand why they should care 3) don’t know what it has to do with their daily life 4) have a negative association with open 5) have a negative association with transparent or 6) all or some combination of the first five possibilities. There are other less general reasons like perceptions around cybersecurity and privacy concerns, but this is a good, basic rundown.

All of these responses can lead to great, productive dialogues, but they can also serve as diversions intended to thwart the advance of discussing and ultimately embracing open and transparent practices. So, in the interest of preventing thwarting and rather, promoting that we move right into a productive dialogue, let me suggest these three reasons to not freak out at the mention of open data and transparency:

1. There’s a ton of data in Northeast Ohio and our state that already is public. It just needs to be liberated, as we say. Code for America, a kind of Peace Corps for techies who want to help make government better, has a great, simple definition. We’re talking about data that is:

released by a government or organization that is:

  • freely available to be used, shared, and reused by anyone for any purpose, commercial or otherwise.
  • available in digital, machine-readable formats (such as .csv) so that it can be used in combination with other data and applications.
  • available in its entirety — and able to be downloaded “in bulk” and not just manually retrieved record-by-record.

So, no one is going after anyone’s private trove of whatever. We will get to the definitional lines of what is public and what isn’t somewhere down the road. But we have so much public information that isn’t currently liberated, we can be kept very busy for a long time. And still do incredibly beneficial work.

2. In Northeast Ohio, we are blessed with fabulous, motivated, ridiculously smart, good-hearted people in the public sector, academia, nonprofit and philanthropic worlds, and increasingly we’re hearing from folks in the private sector who have a genuine, sincere interest in advancing open data. Why do they support this? Because people in the private sector know that data that is public is very useful for economic development. In government, we know that data improves performance measurement, service provision and the bottom line. And we know that data will get people’s innovation juices flowing and they will be able to add to the growing innovation and entrepreneurial landscape.

3. Creating something from nothing – an open data ecosystem where there wasn’t one before – has been done and is being done, by more and more communities, with more variations in terms of partners. We therefore are in a position to take advantage of the early adopters who seeded and prioritized these advances previously. We’ll be in good company: in just the last two weeks, Durham (city and county), Pittsburgh (with Allegheny County), Jackson (Michigan) and Los Angeles (city and county) have embarked on open data and transparency efforts. And, as already mentioned, Northeast Ohio does have hotspots of activity, so we aren’t starting from absolutely nothing, although kind of.

And a bonus batch of evidence against freaking out (or using deflection to thwart advancing):

The three articles below are a sample of the information available that informs us about what’s been learned from prior forays into open data. We take all these reflections seriously because we want Northeast Ohio to advance, but at a pace that optimizes the strength of what is currently coming together, incorporates lessons from others’ experiences and ultimately can lead to a path that is right for us.

Open Data Beyond the Big City

Pushing for Open Data? 3 Steps to Consider

3 Obstacles Preventing Government Agencies From Being Transparent and Efficient

We know not everyone knows the difference between open and transparent, open source and proprietary, or data, big data and medium data. That’s okay. At one time, and not that long ago, we didn’t either. But in addition to providing lots of resources for educating, we’re also going to learn by doing and explain by showing. The weekend of February 20-22 is going to be the first public opportunity to do that in-person so please pencil in the dates. We’ll have more information as the events materialize.

In the meantime, consider this question: what public data do you wish you had access to that you currently don’t? Together, hopefully, we can make it open and transparent, without getting thwarted by the daunting nature of the very big picture.

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