Three ways Open Data is changing the world

10 July 2013 | Safouen Rabah, VP of Product, Socrata

Open Data has exploded past its nascent phase as an answer to improved transparency into a full-fledged movement that permeates all levels of everyday life. Giving citizens access to the troves of public data gathered by the government has triggered a windfall of technology and programs that are improving the lives of people everywhere, in very tangible ways.

1. APIs translate data into a common, accessible language

Open Data works because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. By compiling volumes of existing data into one place, government gives citizens the raw material for all kinds of new services and solutions. Hackers and developers can use public data sets to create apps and crunch data in ways that were not possible due to data being locked in separate silos.

For example, New York City’s “Geek Squad” of data analysts recently found correlations between geo-spatial sewer data and health department inspections information that led to a 95 percent success rate in tracking down restaurants that were illegally dumping grease and clogging up the sewer lines. In Chicago, developers created TowText, a smart phone app that sends you a text message within minutes of your car being towed. Serving data to the public via APIs is providing citizens with real-time data that they can use to solve civic problems.

The true power of an API is that it grants developers access to data in real time. A great example of the relevance of real time data is TowText, the Chicago city app that alerts drivers within minutes of their car being towed.

2. Open Data accelerates development globally

Open Data is not just a first world commodity; it’s being used to promote transparency and increase services all around the world. In 2011, Kenya became the first developing country to host an Open Data portal.

Kenya’s site has over 500 data sets so developers are able to harness the data the government is already collecting and translate it into information that empowers citizens. Portal-derived apps are currently helping Kenyans choose the best schools for their children and locate the best health facilities for their medical needs. Open Data is the currency that’s elevating Kenya’s community of programmers and hackers to a recognized part of the international community.

And globally, the World Bank is using their Open Data portal to provide unprecedented transparency about country funding. Users can sort by country to see how much money is given or received in loans and grants. Ultimately, the World Bank hopes that transparency will help reduce corruption and waste so citizens can get the full value of aid.

Kenya’s Open Data portal is empowering citizens to choose the best schools with up-to-date, rich, geo-spatial data.

3. Consumers benefit from unprecedented transparency

Open Data is leveling the playing field between consumers and businesses by arming consumers with information. Current instances include exposing discrepancies in Medicare billings, leading the consumer rights fight with credit card companies, and exposing airline complaints. In all of these cases, issues were found when all of the data was brought together and made open. For example, should the same gallbladder surgery at one hospital be billed to Medicare at more than twice the cost at a hospital less than 45 minutes away? Shouldn’t diners have access to health inspections as readily as they do Yelp reviews? These are the kinds of common sense improvements that greater data disclosure can help to drive. 

Social media made it possible for people to find restaurants with delicious food. But Open Data is exposing which restaurants run a clean kitchen, as well.

At Socrata, we’ve been on the leading edge of this Open Data movement since the very beginning. Our cloud-based solution helps democratize access to data with turnkey, practical products. We’ve been chosen as the data sharing platform of forward-thinking governments in the US like New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, and Maryland, and ubiquitous organizations like the United Nations, Department of Health & Human Services, and the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. Now available as part of the Azure infrastructure, we’re poised to help more European and LATAM governments, NGOs, and citizen groups realize the potential that Open Data holds. Read our press release—Socrata’s Suite of Open Data Solutions Now Available on Windows Azure Worldwide—or visit for more information on our solutions.

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Safouen Rabah
VP of Product, Socrata