Government open data in 2022

Once thriving, now barely surviving. Ideas on how we can breathe more life into it.

March 4, 2022

Open Data Day is an annual international event where government data enthusiasts – from public sector data professionals to civic hackers – get together and learn from and play with data.

This is, or should be, one of the core global events that serves as a reflection of the health of open government and general civic technology movements. The activity related to these is an indicator of whether government data leaders get the cultural importance of open data and its impact on what collaborative government should be. It’s also a litmus test for understanding how engaged the civic technology community is.

While Open Data Day 2022 is set for tomorrow, and there are activities scheduled throughout the globe, a review of how government is officially showing up on the open data front should give us all pause.

As we venture into tomorrow’s activities, here are a few thoughts about the open data movement, and what can be done to revive its health.

Overhaul Data.gov

Data.gov, managed by the U.S. General Services Administration, is the central repository for official government data – federal, state and local. While GSA doesn’t have enforcement authority over agency open data publishing, it does play a major role in projecting the health of the federal government’s open data efforts, particularly via Data.gov as a product.

Data.gov has changed very little since its inception, both on the technical and user experience fronts. Its upkeep has been dismal. The homepage alone features data sets from 2021 and a Twitter stream last updated November 2021. The site has a number of broken links and many of the data pages link out to external resources, many of which are not well maintained.

It appears that even GSA has little faith in Data.gov as, in the case of USA.gov open data, it uses GitHub to publish and host data.

In general, though, the federal government open data experience leads you down a labyrinth of dead ends, antiquated data or confusing status of how well the information is being maintained.

It’s time to rethink Data.gov with new technology, new design, new stakeholders and a new approach to its development.

Re-think open data portals

At the dawn of the open data movement, there were early entrants – particularly Socrata and CKAN – that ultimately dominated the open data portal market. The former is a private company now owned by Tyler Technologies, and the latter an open source, community-driven project. Both were heavily adopted and retained the general aesthetics and functionality of one another.

Both of those approaches have changed little over the past decade, but data technologies and products have, and they offer much simpler ways to publish and access data.

It’s time we rethink what an open data portal is, including how data is published, discovered, but also how the developer community can better engage with them.

More leadership from the CDO Council

It’s time for the CDO Council to take a more active open data stance and give better guidance on how agencies can execute on this. While it has a new website, playbook and there are an abundance of resources available, it doesn’t appear the CDO Council is culturally aligned with open data principles or showing that it wants to engage beyond the inner workings of the committee bureaucracy.

A major indicator of the CDO Council’s current commitment to open data is that there’s just one open data mention (to a long ago referendum) in the recently released CDO playbook.

We need the CDO Council to show better leadership on open data. Its example can cascade throughout the government food chain, federally and locally.

Open engagement from the government data community

It’s time government CDOs create an open community of practice that includes the general public.

While there is a closed federal open data community of practice for those who have .gov or .mil email addresses, there’s no way for the public to directly engage with government data leaders. There are official subcommittees of the CDO Council and academia-run CDO-specific collaboratives, but there is nothing even close to what we should have in the form of an open data open community of practice.

Government data leaders must open the communications channels and publicly engage with one another, but also industry and developers at large.

This doesn’t need to be formally hosted by an official nonprofit, academic or government organization. In fact, it’s probably best that it forms organically at the grassroots level, and the sign of a great government CDO would be their engagement in that community.

Open Data Day 2023

My hope is that those responsible for or serious about government data will think holistically about how we manage and publish government data, as well as how government can best engage with the community.

Open data is just like accessibility or security. It must be baked into government processes, and not embraced as an afterthought or, even worse, never.

Open data isn’t just about transparency and accountability. It’s about public sector technology leaders showing how government can truly collaborate with the public – with itself even – but also how it can adopt cultural principles of great government.

To celebrate Open Data Day 2022, I’m building a coding project with my 13 year-old son using open government APIs. We’ve done this for two other projects already (see Go .gov and COVID dashboard). Open data has been a great way to teach him about civics, but also build with him in a way I never imagined I would. Unfortunately, it’s also forced me to level his expectations when it comes to government’s open data priorities and, more broadly, how it does (and does not do) digital.

I hope government data leaders take tomorrow and seriously retrospect how they’re leading on open data, and what they can do to open up their public service potential beyond just the data.

Look forward to seeing where all this stands on Open Data Day 2023.

About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is founder of GovFresh. He is the co-founder and CEO of ProudCity.

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