Webinar Recap: "Analyze Boston" and Discovering Next Generation Open Data

May 18, 2017 – Autumn Carter

As McKinsey has found, the public sector is the key to unlocking up to $3 trillion annually in untapped economic value using open data. Yesterday, we hosted a fantastic webinar definitely worth watching. “Discovering Next Generation Open Data” featured the story behind City of Boston’s recent Analyze Boston open data portal. It brought together experienced public sector technology and open data experts who discussed strategies for successfully implementing next generation open data initiatives. The session featured:

  • Andrew Therriault, Chief Data Officer, Boston, MA.
  • Rick Bazzano, IT Manager, Simsbury, CT and President-elect, GMIS International.
  • Joel Natividad, Director of Open Data, OpenGov.

Open data is powerful. The next generation of open data focuses on truly “opening” the data – moving beyond merely storing information online to ensuring it is useful, usable, and used. In this context, because governments produce substantial amounts of important information and operate at critical intersections of society’s critical stakeholders, they are the key to all of us making use of data for communications, technology development, and even government performance management.

“The Journey to Analyze Boston” – A Case Study

Boston’s recent Analyze Boston open data portal represents a powerful example of next generation open data. In fact, the Sunlight Foundation’s open data project lead has said Analyze Boston “is on the cutting-edge of what we're seeing cities do."

Boston Chief Data Officer, Andrew Therriault, spoke about how the city went about revamping its entire open data program, including replacing its old open data site with the more user-friendly Analyze Boston. He presented on the city’s journey from beginning through lessons learned and next steps.

The Previous Generation of Open Data

Boston’s first open data portal debuted in 2012 with an off-the-shelf platform that moved data online from offline storage. Over the years, the Therriault said the city added data sets and views increased, but key functionalities never emerged. “It was just a repository of open data sets,” he said. “Essentially, the open data was being measured in terms of quantity, not quality. And, as a result, it made it harder for our site to be useful. Downloading raw data for most people was the end of the interaction. It was a good first step, but only a first step.”

Sustaining Open Data Through Partnerships

In 2015, the Knight Foundation issued a grant to the City of Boston to reimagine its open data portal in conjunction with public libraries. The result was Analyze Boston, which was not only a beautiful platform, but was also a strategic initiative undertaken as a sustainable partnership. “We used librarians as ambassadors of open data,” Therriault noted. “Hundreds of librarians interact with the public every day. Just as they can help someone find a book, they can connect people to existing data through new mediums – in this case, our open data website.”

The Open Source Advantage

Boston undertook a complete redevelopment of its open data portal, partnering with OpenGov and moving to an open-source CKAN platform. Therriault noted the natural fit between open source and open data, particularly as the cloud-based platform allowed for flexibility, customization, and mobile-friendliness.

As we note in our recent eBook, “Today, there exists a robust open source community called the Comprehensive Knowledge Archive Network (CKAN) comprised of developers from across the globe. CKAN developers have helped build out open data technology infrastructure that anyone – including governments – can use freely. They are constantly improving open data solutions, meaning a CKAN-powered open data portal is much easier to maintain and upgrade over time, reducing costs and required technical personnel.”

Functionality Provides Insights, Real-time Access to Data

The April 2017 launch after a beta test period featured key components of effective portals, including:

  • Functionality. The easy-to-use landing page features relevant links, including data sets listed by topic.
  • Showcases. A featured section includes real projects, illustrating what users can do with the data.
  • Updated data. The portal uses fast integrations, which allows the data to remain fresh.
  • Support resources. Clear instructions and tips are available for users of all backgrounds.

Therriault also spoke to back-end process improvements that included proactive approaches to ensuring privacy and security reviews prior to publishing data, as well as integrating city data with Boston Maps geospacial data sets to provide a single source of information for residents.

WOW Boston - Analyze Boston Open Data Challenge Winner

Takeaways and Next Steps

Therriault provided practical takeaways for viewers:

  • Just publishing open data isn’t enough.
  • Treating open data as siloed or “special” data can lead to its marginalization.
  • Expand what you provide to expand your audience (i.e., meet citizens where they are).
  • Opening data is never finished.

While the two-year grant is nearing its end, Boston plans to continue the project’s momentum by creating in-person and online training opportunities while expanding the portal’s functionality, outreach, and community collaboration.

GMIS International – A Resource

Rick Bazzano, IT Manager for the Town of Simsbury, CT, and President-elect of GMIS International added his on-the-ground endorsement of robust and accessible open data while speaking to the value of networking. GMIS, a professional association of government IT leaders, leverages the collective knowledge of its members and provides best practice solutions to the challenges they face.

OpenGov’s Take on Next Generation Open Data

At OpenGov, our overall goal is to help governments leverage technology to strengthen their performance management. Joel Natividad, OpenGov’s Director of Open Data, articulated our approach to delivering the next generation open data by following the following principles:

  • Data is essential infrastructure. Open data should be based on open standards and be open source to allow different parties to build upon a common foundation with confidence for widescale innovation results.
  • Build software solutions “with, not for.” We we do not simply deliver a pre-packaged proprietary software. Rather, we continuously improve and collaborate with public sector and technology partners, leveraging innovations along the way.
  • Governments are key users and providers of open data. Constituents are best served when governments actively collaborate with one another, and we aim to facilitate and encourage that network.

If you were unable to join the live webinar, be sure to watch it now for additional takeaways we could not cover here. Our related executive brief, Discovering Next Generation Open Data, is also available for free download, and it provides an in-depth exploration of the topic, including case studies of how governments of all sizes are leveraging the next generation of open Data.

Watch the webinar.

Download the eBook.


Autumn Carter leads Government Affairs at OpenGov.