The American landscape can seem sharply divided during a presidential election year. Yet, in the midst of political ads and spin, if there is one thing both parties can openly agree on, it’s the need for more transparency. That’s where the open data movement comes in. The open data movement seeks to provide more open access to government data, documents, tools, and processes. Giving people readily accessible government data promotes involvement in governance and helps spark innovation.

In the United States, this effort to provide more information has been underway for years, but has recently taken shape. President Obama signed the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government on his first day in office in an effort to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily use and to make government more participatory and collaborative. In 2009, the White House launched the Open Government Directive that requires federal agencies to take immediate, specific steps to make government information more accessible. This has resulted in useful websites like USAspending.gov and recovery.gov. This past June, House Speaker John Boehner supported a bill that would create a task force to make government information, including data on bills and lawmakers, available in a more easily accessible way.

The open data initiative has also been gaining traction internationally. Two weeks ago, the Ciudad Móvil Conference
was held in Mexico City, where experts from the United States, Argentina, and Mexico examined the future of open data in Mexico City, the first city in Mexico with an open data agenda. In July, the World Bank hosted the Second International Open Government Data Conference in Washington, D.C. where more than 50 countries were in attendance.

Although national governments have been becoming increasingly involved in promoting transparency, cities like New York, San Francisco, and London have launched open data initiatives to spark innovation at a local level. By making available statistics about topics such as transit, crime, and education, cities have allowed citizens to get involved in new ways through ‘hackathons,’ where tech-savvy citizens can get involved in creating applications and websites that put government information to new uses. For example, the winners of New York’s 2011 Big Apps competition ranged from a public pre-K and elementary school finder to an application providing apartment hunters with building maintenance reports.

The promotion of open access to public information seems like the next logic step in the technological age. The advantages of having government information public can be viewed from a democratic, egalitarian perspective, whereby citizens can gain access to government information more easily and can make more informed decisions as a result. This can spark more political advocacy, new policy ideas, and reduce the opportunity for corrupt governments to gain traction. In addition, the push for open data allows citizens to get involved in helping better their communities through useful applications and technologies.

As governments make available more data to their citizens, more questions are raised: Will open data initiatives really help re-engage citizens? Will increased transparency really give us better politicians? What unknown ramifications are there to making all this data public?

Veronica Gordon

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One Response to Open Sesame

  1. Lizzie says:

    Some have argued that open access to government data will help depoliticize debates, allowing more educated and informed decisions to be made. However, agreeing on accessing the same dataset will not necessarily lead to agreement on how to interpret, measure, and utilize the data. I believe that access to government data is very important, equipping citizens with knowledge. But any conclusions drawn from the data is only as good as the data itself. I foresee much debate in the decisions behind what data are collected and how the data are collected.