Monday, April 13, 2015

What Are Open Government And Open Data?

The concepts of open government and open data are key concepts for civic hacking.

Open government is the governing doctrine which holds that citizens have the right to access the documents and proceedings of the government to allow for effective public oversight (from the Wikipedia article about open government).

Open data is the idea that certain data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control (from the Wikipedia article about open data).

Although the concepts of open government and public access to government data began before personal computers and the Internet, these two chunks of technology have helped make both government and data more 'open' in terms of making it much easier for an average citizen to find and use data about or from their government. Civic hacking is partly the process of making even more governmental data and other info about their city, county, state or country available to citizens in ways that are easier to access and more useful. One interesting example of this is MadisonRightNow.

Madison is probably the leading city in Wisconsin for open data, as a look at their open data webpage shows. The other main Wisconsin city open data site is the Milwaukee open data webpage. OpenDataPhilly is an excellent example of how to make a city's open data available online. Ten or twenty years from now, it's likely that all city websites will have an open data webpage.

Searching for open data related to counties highlights three points. First, many counties do not view 'open data' as an important or useful label for their publicly available information. A search for open data in Outagamie County didn't give any results on the first page of Google results. Searches for Calumet and Winnebago Counties gave the same type of result. The second point is that county data most likely to be labeled 'open' is GIS data (geographic information systems, which is all sorts of stuff related to mapping). I did find open data sites for Sauk County and Waukesha County, but those websites had only GIS data. The third point about county open data is that there is plenty of county public data available online, and it can be challenging to find the first time you look for it. It would be nice to be able to easily find public info of high interest to citizens. Although you might be able to look up a specific piece of publicly available data, the data is likely not truly open, i.e. you may not have access to the entire dataset that specific piece of information came from.

States are also generally less advanced on the topic of open data than cities, likely due to factors such as (1) a city's data is more interesting to civic hackers than is their state's data, (2) state data systems are larger and less responsive to citizen involvement or change, and (3) tight state budgets mean improvements will only be made if viewed as politically important. A Google search didn't find a Wisconsin open data webpage in the first page of results, although a similar search for Michigan found the Open Michigan website and the Michigan GIS Open Data website.

From a national perspective, the US government has adopted the open data terminology and the website is a good place to begin if you're interested in open data at the federal level.

Civic hackers interested in learning more about open government should check out the Sunlight Foundation, whose goal is to make government more accountable and transparent, and the Open Knowledge Foundation.

If you're interested in civic hacking in areas other than computer programming, you might want to consider getting involved with City Camp, an unconference focused on innovation and collaboration for municipal governments, community organizations and citizens. Many cities with strong civic hacking communities participate in the National Day of Civic Hacking (in June) and in City Camp Day (in January).

I hope this brief post gave you an inkling of what open government and open data mean, along with good online starting points if you want to learn more about the two topics.

If you want to see open government and open data in action, REGISTER today for the DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015. This event will happen on June 6, 2015, it's free, and you'll meet other people interested in civic hacking!

Tomorrow's post will look at why YOU should be a civic hacker.


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