A major goal of open data programs is to increase transparency. Making data open is a way to provide citizens with a view into the activities and processes of public institutions. Open data can also improve collaboration between citizens and public agencies and increase the level of civic participation. However, transparency can be costly.
Costs can include personnel time, heightened susceptibility to cyber-theft, high cost of compliance with open data standards, and public scrutiny of decision-makers. Agencies at all levels of government are investing in open data programs but there is little research on the utility of these programs in terms of increasing transparency, collaboration, or participation. Large variation in open data policies makes such evaluations extremely complicated. Apples to apples comparisons of open data policies are difficult because federal, state, and local level governments have distinctive operational and infrastructural constraints.
At the federal level, open data is largely used to reveal information about administrative systems (i.e. how much an agency spends, contract details, etc.). The Open Government Directive mandates how data should be released, how often, and the specific format. Although there are variations in the type and quality of data, the federal government streamlines much of its policies and procedures.
Local and State Open Data
However, on the state and local level, the scope and maturity of open data policies vary substantially. This is because state and local governments have their own political, social, and policy realities that guide the way data are collected, stored, and released. Therefore, not all open data policies are of equal quality. For instance, much of local governments’ data are based off of state or local mandates. These rules are unique to the locality and carry different expectations. For instance, the mayor of Memphis mandated in 2009 that all city forms and documents that are commonly used by the public be made available on the city website for completion and submission online. Conversely, in other cases, the option of acquiring and releasing citizen data is made permissible but not mandatory. Another instance includes the state of Michigan, which allows county clerks to adopt an Internet or e-filing campaign disclosure system.
Another reason for these variations is that cities have different realities that impact the type and quality of their data. Differences of type and quality can create a divide between data that has been released and data that is actually useful/usable.
Different Laws Create Different Data
Consider the issue of asset disclosures by elected officials to prevent conflicts of interests. Municipalities across the country have varying policies and varying compliance and enforcement of those policies. For instance, in Honolulu, pertinent information about asset disclosures were missing due to hard-to-understand wording on a form. In Philadelphia, the city’s open data initiative required asset disclosures be made by the mayor, his staff, city department leaders, and members and staff of the city council and to be shared online. However, a reporter found that Philadelphia had not posted the disclosures online and were actually requiring individuals to physically visit a government building to view the documents.
Agencies at all levels of government differ in how they administer their open data programs. Some data collection methods have strong enforcement mechanisms while others do not. This unevenness can lead to limited, misleading, or incomplete data. The variation in open data policies creates a significant issue for understanding more about the success of these programs. Examining the differences between programs also makes it easier to identify best practices. It is clear that without proper enforcement and oversight, many open data programs can be implemented in an inconsistent manner. As more and more groups, look for research about open data programs, they will look past anecdotal evidence and seek to find concrete reasons for an investment of political capital.
Open data creates a lot of discomfort for individuals in the public sector. In Honolulu, two officials resigned from their positions, citing a new bill that required them to submit asset disclosures on online. They noted that they had nothing to hide but felt that their personal information shouldn’t be put online for the public. Finding new ways to deal with the intrusiveness and commitment that open data requires will continue to be a challenge as more people begin to weigh the cost/benefits, risks/rewards.