5 considerations before deploying open data standards

21 March 2014 | Ian Kalin, Director of Open Data, Socrata

A century ago, two scientists—Tesla and Edison—were leading an industry debate on whether light bulbs should be powered by alternating current versus direct current. Our ability to plug a laptop into any electrical socket at home but not abroad demonstrates the far-reaching impact of a standards discussion.

Technical standards are what allow a Verizon user to text an AT&T user, or allow a driver to buy gasoline from any station without risk of putting incompatible fuel in the tank. Civic data standards bring similar benefits, and their use is a hot topic in government circles worldwide. Here are the top questions I hear in my meetings with city leaders and CIOs.

Why should we care about open data standards? What’s the upside for government agencies?

Open data has the power to help cities achieve their goals. By making public information resources accessible to everyday innovators, cities can empower citizens to make better decisions about their safety, education, and productivity. Technologically savvy businesses are also transforming open data from governments into new products and services that are helping to lower the costs of healthcare, fight climate change, and meet other pressing needs.

An example of cities extracting value from standards is the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS). GTFS allows users of Bing Maps to know when the next bus, train, or other mass transit service is due to arrive.  By making mass transit schedules available in GTFS format, cities are helping to increase mass transit participation and reduce urban congestion. Unfortunately, most civic data sets aren’t as uniformly formatted as GTFS. Open data is naturally messy.

Hasn’t Big Data already solved the problem of messy data?

Tools exist to help mobile applications understand the similarities between a data field labeled “Address” and one labeled “Street, City, State.”  The real problem is the scale of deployment. For example, a San Francisco-based application that places food inspection scores in people’s hands cannot easily scale to Philadelphia if scores are calculated differently in each city, or if the data isn’t available in real time via an Application Programming Interface (API). 

Where should we start when implementing standards?

Start small and create a clear, compelling win. Every government has many services and shifting priorities, but there is almost certainly an existing technical standard that can support near-term priorities. For example, if a city mayor declares that housing is a top priority, then the city’s deployment of HouseFacts—a housing safety standard—can attract housing-oriented businesses like Trulia or Zillow to address that priority. Similarly, if improved citizen engagement is the goal, then Open311 is available to help citizens report potholes and graffiti in their neighborhoods.

Who else is helping cities with data standards?

Lots of people. Creating and maintaining standards is big business—big enough to attract groups like ISO and ANSI as well as federal organizations like NIST and EnergyStar. There are also great initiatives from non-profit organizations like Code for America and the Open Data Institute. Ultimately, standards are usually the best friends of the cities and businesses that consume them. 

What does the future hold for data standards?

Most people don’t care about data standards, they just want access to information that should be within easy reach. Until very recently, it was nearly impossible to compare the pricing for common procedures across hospitals. Data standards made that possible. Similarly, it used to be complicated for educators to connect federal learning resources to their curriculum. A data standard called The Learning Registry made that possible too. Expect more solutions like these in the next few years.

To read more about the latest news and trends in open data, check out Open Innovation, Socrata’s quarterly magazine.

Have a comment or opinion on this post? Let me know @Microsoft_Gov. Or e-mail us at ongovernment@microsoft.com.

Ian Kalin
Director of Open Data, Socrata

About the Author

Ian Kalin | Director of Open Data, Socrata

Ian helps governments unleash the power of data to improve the world. A former Presidential Innovation Fellow for the White House, Ian has also succeeded as a clean-tech entrepreneur and as a U.S. Naval officer.