We built it. They came. They left. The reason? Open data was treated as a technology project, when it should initially have been conceived and governed as a business project.
Tom Sawyer was an imaginative transformation architect. How else could he get his friends to trade him small treasures for the “privilege” of painting his fence, a chore he was given originally as a punishment? And so was written one of the earliest instances of the crowdsourcing model that is so prevalent in today’s digital social age.
Let’s fast forward to the public sector open data movement, which has been in existence for the better part of five years, and do a “stop and pause” reflection. Many governments around the world are not only participating in open data, they are moving toward their second or even third generation environments.
For example, the recent announcement about the revamping of the government of Canada’s Open Data Portal to improve its functionality and searchability offers an interesting context for how to make use of open data and truly capitalize on its potential. The importance of data in improving organizational efficiency within a data to discovery to dollars process, as outlined by Thomas C. Redman in the Harvard Business Review, as well as the potential for open data to “bolster transparency and citizen engagement,” as stated by Treasury Board president Tony Clement, demonstrate the importance of re-aligning open data initiatives with business needs to truly harness their potential.
Open data portals, as a function of open government, usually contain useful data for interested stakeholders to repurpose and meet the needs of a particular audience. However, data is only valuable if it is used.
As containers, municipal open data portals have been put in place in cities such as Québec City, Montréal, Vancouver, Edmonton, Ottawa and New York, created by technical experts, managed using project plans, implemented with sound principles and launched with great fanfare.
Several months later, while there are some success stories, many open data portals have little to none of the internal or public engagement of the initial open data portal premise. The portal then becomes another data repository understood and available to the few who were initially involved with its construction and launch, and abandoned by the many who could have participated in its sustainability. Well-intentioned and well-meaning city planners, project managers and developers are then left wondering why a concept meant to be as participatory and engaging as open data falls by the wayside.
Remember, Tom Sawyer’s true interest wasn’t to simply receive small treasures from his friends. His ultimate objective was the painting of the fence, a symbol of renewal for something old and tired.
Open data is not simply about information containers or portals. It is about cultivating and managing relationships through benefits-driven initiatives. A citizen’s relationship with his/her city and country is one that is personal, needs-driven and expectation based. To truly capitalize on open data’s promise is to plan the participatory approach by defining a future that goes beyond a container and into the network of relationships both required and created by an open data approach in direct response to a department or agency’s strategic plan.
Upon strategic alignment with a defined vision, participatory governance and responsible management of open data can occur. The key to a successful approach to open data is to map out and architect relationships and levels of engagement, whether from internal employees, web developer communities, business leaders or interested citizens. By connecting and leveraging key networks, initial incremental successes can be promoted as open data is put to use in creative and innovative ways by all stakeholders.
When these stakeholder relationships are nurtured over time, officially validating and recognizing the efforts of passionate, dedicated and engaged participants becomes an easy task. Telling and sharing the story of each success adds to the value of using open data as practical and pragmatic applications emerge and citizens put the applications to use.
All levels of government, from municipal to federal, are uniquely poised to lead the way to new economic opportunities while significantly reducing operational costs. Open data is a means to truly efficient and effective collaboration among various contributors and participants. Simply said, government is everybody’s metaphorical fence and we are in an age where citizens and business can help with its renewal. But in this case, the treasures exchanged are ubiquitous and shared.
Stephen Karam is a Systemscope partner and head of the Government Service Excellence practice at Systemscope. Chamika Ailapperuma is a senior consultant at Systemscope in the Government Service Excellence practice.