There are likely over one million blog posts, longreads, and infographics that define “Open Data.” Every piece of writing, chart, and illustration that explains Open Data struggles to make its point because bullet point definitions of big ideas need specific examples to make it real and to make a lasting impact. Instead of talking about what Open Data is, let’s discuss one of the biggest returns on investment for publishing Open Data.

If you’re interested in finding out more about what Open Data is, a number of people and organizations have described it thoroughly, including The Open Data Handbook (http://opendatahandbook.org/en/what-is-open-data/) and the group that created the 8 Principles of Open Government Data (http://opengovdata.org/).

Socrata, the software provider for San Mateo County’s Open Data and Open Performance platform, has created an Open Data value framework (http://www.socrata.com/open-data-value-framework/) that describes four things Open Data can do:

  • Optimize citizen experience
  • Contribute to making data-driven decisions
  • Increase operational efficiency
  • Create new possibilities with the data itself

Interestingly, despite the fact that most people think of Open Data’s in terms of the value in its being shared publicly, more of the benefits outlined above focus on internal organizational effectiveness of the government entity. Why is that?

It turns out that the most useful way to share data with the public is to share data internally. While successes that can be filed under the “create new possibilities” category above are the most shared and most celebrated, the internal efficiency, transparency, and openness created through preparing and publishing Open Data are the real internal benefits of an Open Data program. Since it isn’t possible to share what you don’t know you have or what you can’t control, Open Data is inherently first a data management tool, and then secondarily a means of sharing that data.

But haven’t we already solved the problem of data management? Yes, but historically we’ve managed data to ensure integrity, security, and privacy. Open Data, on the other hand, enables an organization to think of data as an organizational-wide asset, and as such, requires a rethinking of how to manage this asset. For example, Open Data demands a separation between data and software since data needs to be sourced, combined, and re-used in many different ways. Open Data often asks new question of and demands more of older technology.

Another difference is increased internal customer demand to this data. As access to and capabilities with technology expand, more questions can be answered through data and analysis. For example, an HSA case manager, in addition to just delivering specific services to clients, may want to find out more about where clients live in relation to open spaces, transit, and how available fresh food is within a certain distance from clients’ residences to gain insight into their overall health. These questions all require data that can be found and used easily, data that needs to be open internally to be discovered and utilized. Open Data attracts new internal users of that data who are now possess a powerful asset to solve problems seemingly insoluble before.

Of course, the cherry on top of all this internal data sharing is that, when appropriate and without identifying any individuals, the County can then publish this data to the web for everyone to discover and use via its Open Data Portal (https://data.smcgov.org). There are a number of other changes happening around public expectations as a result of sharing Open Data, but that is a discussion for another blog post. In the meantime, it may be worthwhile to take a moment to think about both what data you create on a daily basis that might be of value to your colleagues as well as what data could enhance your own work. It’s likely others want to use and share the same data!