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Making the Most of Open Government Data

This is a guest post from Microsoft, a capstone sponsor of the 2015 Code for America Summit.

Today the benefits of opening government data are taken as a given: transparency, accountability, jumpstarting innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic development, improving services, and increasing opportunity.  But making data freely available is only a first step.  Data must also be easily discoverable and available in consistent and easily usable formats; otherwise, “opening” data is a token gesture.  While there is still work to do to satisfy these basic requirements, we are seeing a lot of creative effort to ensure that the impact of government data is realized. A few examples illustrate what I mean.

The Center for Open Data Enterprise launched last February with the mission to “maximize the value of open data as a public resource that anyone can use.”  In addition to producing a map that shows open data around the world, the Center launched a strategic effort to convene data users and providers to identify challenges and opportunities with data from particular government agencies.  Microsoft is proud to support this work as the Open Data Partner of the Center’s Roundtables.  Thus far this year, the Center convened roundtables with the Departments of Transportation, Energy, and Veterans Affairs, each of which produced practical recommendations to ensure that these agencies’ data can be leveraged for maximum impact.  There is really no substitute for getting stakeholders in the same room.

Chicago’s City Data Users Group is a different kind of effort to drive maximum impact from open data.  Founded by Adam Hecktman, Microsoft’s Director of Technology & Civic Innovation for Chicago, the goal of the group is to ensure that the opportunities to use open data are broadly available. The group seeks to promote civic engagement, innovation, and economic opportunity by ensuring that everyone—community members, business users, enthusiasts, students, and entrepreneurs—has the chance to learn how to use the City’s data.  With programs as varied as telling stories with data, how to understand and use energy data from various sources in Chicago, and using US census data, the group has grown from an initial 14 to more than 900 members in a little over a year.

A final example comes from USDA’s Innovation Challenge.  Co-sponsored by Microsoft, the Innovation Challenge runs through November and seeks ways to build a sustainable US food system in light of the likely toll of climate change.  By making access to 100 years of USDA data easy and efficient through cloud-based interfaces, for the first time, farmers, scientists, civic technologists, and others have the ability to create applications and tools built on this rich trove combined with other data sets, e.g., satellite imagery, remote sensors, geologic surveys, and economic analyses.  The Innovation Challenge can spark the creative use of data and computing power to address the critical issue of food resilience.

As a capstone sponsor of the 2015 Code for America Summit, Microsoft will present a breakout session on Data Visualization, featuring Lourdes German, founder of the Civic Innovation Project, Holly St. Clair, Director of Data Services at the Boston area Metropolitan Area Planning Council, Steve Vance, Chicago transit reporter and urban planner, Gordon Feller, Cisco’s Director of Internet of Everything, and Claire Micklin, University of Chicago Interaction Designer and Researcher. Come by to join in exploring the best ways to present open data to achieve real impact. Our Tech & Civic Engagement team looks forward to connecting with you there and throughout the Summit.