Open Data, open arms: Welcome to the era of transparent government

Government transparency has gone mainstream. The momentum starts with the huge variety of organizations that are committed to Open Data principles—everything from grassroots groups to major international institutions. Additional lift comes from a steady flow of write-ups in well-regarded, internationally syndicated publications.

The strongest evidence of a vital Open Data movement is the success of ongoing transparency projects around the world. Consider Colombia’s rapid development of a national Open Data portal. This comprehensive site showcases 45 distinct public data sets aggregated from 19 separate government agencies. Another example is the UK Meteorological Office, which publishes weather data from 150 weather stations and 5,000 forecast sites nationwide. The organization’s Data Point website, which hosts all of this information, now receives 550,000 transactions a month. In the United States, major cities including Chicago and New York are grabbing headlines for their savvy use of data analytics to solve common urban problems and improve the quality of life for city residents.

In the glow of these high-profile success stories, it’s easy to overlook the complexities and challenges that can undermine an Open Data initiative. Here’s how successful governments are overcoming the challenges and making the transition.

1. Embrace openness

First and foremost, government agencies need to transform the way they relate to their data and their constituents, and honestly evaluate their own performance. This starts with rethinking the role that data plays in day-to-day operations. Until very recently, governments were expected to be the sole owners of public information; today governments are expected to provide near-complete transparency to public records. Rather than viewing this responsibility as a burden, successful government agencies embrace Open Data as an opportunity. Data is not just a public resource but a valuable asset that drives internal efficiencies. 

2. Transform infrastructure

After endorsing the ideological underpinnings of Open Data, government agencies then must address the technical complications that can accompany a new approach to data management. Chief among these is the use of aging IT systems that were never designed for broad, cross-departmental data sharing, at least not at the scale required by today’s standards for transparency. Beyond silo-based systems, many government agencies lack the web infrastructure and public-facing Internet presence to deliver the kind of fluid online experience that their constituents expect.

3. Engage citizens

Data transparency takes work. But emerging technologies in cloud computing, self-service data analysis, and social media make it easier to collect, publish, and reuse data. For example, cloud computing and storage solutions provide affordable alternatives to costly on-premises storage, networking, and redundancy infrastructure. And the expansion of web services with open APIs means that government organizations can more easily make public data available for reuse. In fact, by engaging citizen developers as active participants, these organizations can reduce the cost to build new web applications—while promoting the spirit of civic collaboration that is at the heart of the Open Data movement.

4. Nurture innovation

Governments around the world are also taking advantage of advances in data analysis technologies. In some cases, agencies are realizing that they’ve been underutilizing the database management and other business intelligence software tools they already own. In other cases, they see the benefits of upgrading these systems to process increasingly large volumes of data and generate high-quality data visualization assets to share with constituents. And by integrating these data sites with social networking tools, innovative governments take transparency to an entirely new level.

These are just a few of the ways that governments are overcoming the challenges of collecting, analyzing, and sharing insights from their data. To learn more, explore Microsoft in Government solutions and see how Microsoft CityNext is driving change at the city level. Or check out the turnkey Open Data solutions from Socrata, a Seattle-based cloud software company and Microsoft Partner.

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Parul Bhandari
Government Lead, Open Data and Big Data