Photo: Steve Ballmer - USAFacts

Steve Ballmer’s USAFacts and Next Generation Open Data

By | In The News, Insights | No Comments

We love open data.

Several months back, I recall a flurry of excitement and curiosity circulating through our inboxes and lunch conversations here at OpenGov. What is this going to look like? How are they going to collect their data? How far into the data will we be able to drill down?

We were discussing former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s plans for, a government transparency site he was planning to launch. USAFacts sounded ambitious and data-driven and fundamentally citizen-focused. Those are qualities central to OpenGov’s mission of empowering more effective and accountable government.

Governments Power USAFacts

I think it’s critical to note government’s role in making USAFacts possible. Governments function as a critical, if not the primary, information source in many cases. The federal government has opened much of its data, which explains USAFacts’ emphasis at that level. It also explains why there is still so much untapped potential to unlock the benefits of open data among local and state governments.

More local and state governments are opening their data each day, and as the next generation of open data emerges, there is greater opportunity to make data more than simply available. At OpenGov, we are committed to helping governments learn how to make their data useful as well.

For example, here is a short excerpt from our new eBook, Discovering Next Generation Open Data:

The previous generation of open data emerged over the last decade, promising a bold, ambitious, and robust future. Unfortunately, those promises fell short once it was clear the state of technology could not deliver on them at the time.

At its advent, the greatest need was in digitization. Many governments recognized they needed to build their online presence by moving their files and data online. The first generation of open data focused here: closing the gap between unavailable and available data.

It was a critical first step, but public administrators and the public had expected more. The mere act of moving data online did little to ensure anyone actually used it. For administrators excited by the prospect of giving life to data, limited use cases and nascent public engagement were disappointing.

Today, technology for sharing and accessing data online has improved significantly, and more governments are primed to make use of their organizational data.They are adopting the next generation of open data, shifting their focus to use and usability. They no longer have to contend with the high costs of building and maintaining the technology themselves, and they no longer worry about operating without guidance and clear best practices. Much has changed in a decade.

Government as Data Provider and User

One crucial change has been the recognition that the public sector is pivotal given its role not only as a critical data provider, but also as a critical data user. The public sector is the key to unlocking open data’s value.

A 2014 McKinsey study identified open data as the potential source of more than $3 trillion in untapped economic value comprised of “increased revenue, savings, and economic surplus that flow from the insights provided by data as diverse as census demographics, crop reports, and information on product recalls.” And as McKinsey noted, “Sitting at the nexus of key stakeholders – citizens, businesses, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) – government is ideally positioned to extract value from open data and to help others do the same.”

It is clear that USAFacts is an example of an effort to make data more useful – in this case, as a way to make information clearer to citizens. The exciting part is that it is only one initiative made possible by governments “sitting at the nexus of key stakeholders.” As governments continue opening their data going forward, they will be powering endless valuable use cases for citizens, journalists, non-profits, businesses, and their own public sector organizations. I can hardly wait to see it.

Click here to download the free eBook, Discovering Next Generation Open Data.

Earning a 5-Star Texas Transparency Stars Rating: Interview with McKinney, TX’s Trevor Minyard

By | Customer Stories, Finance Officer's Desk | No Comments

Editor’s Note: This month, McKinney, Texas, became the first municipality in Texas to receive all five transparency stars from the Texas Comptroller’s distinguished Transparency Stars program. McKinney’s team has successfully used the OpenGov Smart Government Platform™ within its organization and has shared its thought leadership with other governments looking to develop stronger open data initiatives. We jumped at the chance to chat with McKinney’s Senior Financial Analyst, Trevor Minyard, about how the city achieved its five-star Texas Transparency Stars rating.  

First, from the entire OpenGov team: congratulations to the McKinney team for your well-deserved five-star Texas Transparency Stars rating. Tell us about when you heard the news.

We received the five-star notification on Thursday, April 6, when we got confirmation from the Comptroller’s office. Only one other municipality in the state had achieved four stars, and we wanted to be the first to earn all five. We made it first, and remain the only five-star city or government entity in the state.

This achievement is specifically due to diligent work from one of our accountants Xochilt Medina and Finance Director Trudy Mathis.

That unique designation is certainly validation that McKinney is doing many things right. Can you describe what the five-star achievement means to the city’s stakeholders, both internal and external?

Absolutely. I’ll start first with the Council.

The Council has given the staff goals through its strategic planning process. Two major goals that impact the finance area are 1) operational excellence and 2) a financially sound government. The Council expects us to meet those goals, and that we’ll have a financially transparent government across a number of measures.

Having these goals started us down the road of offering our information online, and led to us using the OpenGov platform. In addition the new state Comptroller’s robust transparency program pushed us towards the five -star achievement, and the distinction has validated our commitment to transparency from the top down.

From the staff perspective, we immediately set a goal for ourselves – being the first in the state to get all five stars. Accomplishing that is a nice achievement, but it’s not the end. We have a continuous commitment to transparency. We’re not just resting on having a great platform or meeting certain metrics. Our job is still to communicate to Council that we are continuing to push for increased transparency in the most visible ways.

And that’s where we intersect with our citizens.

This recognition demonstrates that we are doing everything we can to make information not just available, but easy to understand. We don’t want to just present information, we want it to be relevant.

I think it’s important to mention our Mayor’s sentiments here because his words touch on all of these areas. Mayor Loughmiller said, “The City Council and I have long embraced public transparency, and we are proud of this recognition and the efforts by our city staff in making it happen. That our community has more ways than ever to be engaged, obtain factual data and information, and stay informed is great news for McKinney. Every citizen deserves open government.”

For those unfamiliar with the Transparency Stars program in Texas, can you talk a little about the stars and the program’s requirements?

Of course. The Comptroller’s program recognizes local government entities that provide easy online access to important financial data. McKinney earned stars in the areas of Traditional Finances, Contracts and Procurement, Economic Development, Public Pensions, and Debt Obligations. Our City Manager Paul Grimes said the Texas Comptroller set forth some of the most rigorous standards for financial transparency for local governments that he has seen.

While the Transparency Stars program encourages greater access to a wide range of local information in those five categories, it also highlights government efforts to provide citizens with the tools to better understand and analyze that information. For example, to receive a star, check registers can’t just be placed online. They also must be searchable and allow users to easily perform analysis on the data.

Our partnership with OpenGov really helped us achieve the stars.

The first star, Traditional Finances, for example, entails all the things most governments partake in. It’s the foundational step, and all entities have to meet the metrics of this first star before applying for the other four. We accomplished a good bit of this foundational star through references to our OpenGov platform. For instance, we needed to show monthly reports, and we easily provided the Comptroller’s office with the link to our interactive monthly financials. Through OpenGov, we were able to similarly reference links to interactive vendor check registers as well as payroll reports.

Debt obligations is another area where we referenced OpenGov. Through the platform, we were able to showcase our interactive financial report that includes where we have obligations such as revenue bonds, and outstanding debt service, as well as details of our debt retirement schedule.

In the other areas, the availability of historical data proved useful, such as our ability to show how we are funding pension liability not just in the present, but also how we funded it in the past.

Photo: McKinney Texas Transparency Stars - Finance Team

(Left to Right): Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, Deputy City Manager Jose Madrigal, Chief Financial Officer Mark Holloway, Members of the Finance Department. Source: City of McKinney, TX

With this five-star transparency designation and demonstrated use of open data technology tools, you certainly seem to be doing your part to make information accessible. How do you ensure that your citizens are aware of, and taking advantage of, the available information?

It’s a matter of communication more than anything.

We can be as comprehensive as possible in making information available, but making it palatable is the key step for actual engagement. We have a very involved citizenry – particularly online. They follow the city’s social media site, interact via e-mail, and also come to speak during Council meetings.

Just last Thursday, our Communications Department hosted an all-day Twitter initiative regarding the budget as part of its “#SeeMcKinneyWithMe” online series. This was to get out in front of our first public budget meeting. We also utilize our online platform that allows citizens to assign “dots” to departments they want to see funded through the budget. This shows us their priorities.

It’s really a matter of utilizing tools and building up layers. We use OpenGov to provide information – our five-star recognition validates that we’re doing a good job at that. We then proactively provide opportunities for citizens to get involved through interactive, online forums. We provide opportunities for Q&A online, as well as a digital workshop that allows users to “allocate” resources to the areas they are passionate about. There is a lot of interaction.

For finance officers around the country, what should be the key takeaway around McKinney’s success?

The key message is that cities that are committed to transparency are cities that leverage technology for transparency and engagement.

The transparency stars themselves were not really the focus of our efforts. The achievement was more a notch in our belt. Cities should not buy a product to earn a star. Rather, cities that are committed to transparency are also ones that effectively utilize innovative tools.

In McKinney, from the top down, we want financially sound government and operational excellence continuously by enhancing our internal “toolkit.” We began online financial reporting through OpenGov, and we continue to make it more robust by adding, for example, capital improvement maps, weaving in clearly-articulated performance measures, and engaging the citizenry. All of these are the building blocks in the totality of being transparent.

McKinney, Texas, is a true leader in effective transparency, and it’s inspiring that your focus is on continued innovation. With your forward-looking focus, what can we expect next?

Well, thank you for calling us a leader. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the remarks of our state Comptroller, Glenn Hegar, who said, “McKinney is setting an example that I hope all local government entities in Texas will follow.”

We definitely do plan to continue to make our data accessible and understandable in increasingly visible ways. Our next area of focus is really on performance measures. We want to clearly link outcomes to the inputs that we’re giving to the community. We want to use those outcomes to validate and explain how we are completing the Council’s strategic plan. We also hope to get more people involved in the budget process by providing them with the tools to truly understand the underlying finances. We want to bring the citizens along with us as we go through the process. And, if the Comptroller decides to add a sixth star to the program, we look forward to being the first to achieve all six!

Trevor Minyard is a Senior Financial Analyst with the City of McKinney, Texas. Check out McKinney’s public-facing OpenGov open data portal.

Featured Photo (Left to Right): City Manager Paul Grimes, Mayor Brian Loughmiller, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, Council member Tracy Rath, Council member Rainey Rogers (Source: City of McKinney, TX)

K-12 Financing: Communicating for Success Under Today’s Intense Public Scrutiny - Photo Source: Menlo Park City School District

K-12 Financing Proposals: 3 Ways to Make the Stronger Case

By | Customer Stories, Insights, Webinars | No Comments

This week, I was fortunate to host a fantastic webinar: K-12 Financing: Communicating for Success Under Today’s Intense Public Scrutiny. Chief Business and Operations Officer Ahmad Sheikholeslami of Northern California’s Menlo Park City School District told the story of how his district successfully passed a critical financing measure earlier this year after voters rejected two similar proposals last year.

K-12 Financing: Contending with Resource Crunches

Across the country, K-12 districts are financed in a variety of ways. But especially amid the last recession and recovery, it is common that many are contending with resource crunches. They often find themselves relying more heavily on existing revenue sources and seeking alternative ones. Thus, many now find themselves turning to their local communities to approve funding measures such as parcel tax increases or bond measures.

The reality is that no K-12 school district funding proposal fails or succeeds on its own. And passing a school funding proposal is not always as straightforward as it once was. Votes that were routine a decade ago now require district administrators to contend with misinformation that can spread via social media, unwillingness to attend in-person meetings, and skepticism of public institutions.

It may seem obvious – especially following a failed funding measure – but strategic, proactive communication is a key factor to success.  

(Not So) Evergreen Funding Measures

This brings me to Northern California’s Menlo Park City School District (MPCSD). Comprised of five schools educating kindergarten through eighth-grade students, MPCSD is 90% “community-funded.” Their funding sources include the Menlo Park-Atherton Education Foundation, the district’s Parent Teacher Organization (PTO), and property and parcel taxes.

MPCSD was used to passing a few main parcel taxes, considering them “evergreen.” As Ahmad explained during the webinar, MPCSD “had to rely on requesting additional funding from the community through parcel taxes. And we’ve done that in the past to insulate ourselves from some of the ups and downs of the state economy, but also to provide the level of education that meets the expectations of our community… .”

When the State of California reduced its funding to school districts during the recession, many of their budgets took hits year after year. MPCSD was no exception, facing cuts even as its student enrollment was rising.

In 2016, as its 7-year parcel tax was about to expire, MPCSD knew its state funding would not be restored due to changes in state funding policy. “We also looked at future cost increases and other things that were going on internally. We needed to extend the existing parcel tax, but also look at being to deal with future growth in enrollment,” Ahmad explained. So the district proposed two proposed parcel tax increases to address those challenges.

They tax increases presented an unexpected challenge to the district.

In trying to pass the proposed tax increases, the district undertook the same strategies it had always employed in its campaigns: hosting in-person meetings and presenting its financials as PDFs. For the first time, an opposition group emerged. And as misinformation and misunderstanding spread throughout the community, the measures failed.

Making a Stronger Case for Funding

The district needed a new strategy. It had to make a stronger case for the funding.

Ahmad outlined the three major approaches MPCSD used:

  1. Improve the Mode of Communication: “What we liked about [the OpenGov platform] is that in an elegant and simple manner, it took our own data and presented it in a way so that people could – at a high level, at a mid-level, or at a detailed level – drill into the data. And that was really important for us: To make sure our modes of communication and our data were out there so we weren’t really arguing over the facts, but we were discussing the merits.”
  2. Debate the Merits, Not the Facts: “We started to move the discussion away from, ‘Well is that financial data reliable? Are they hiding anything? They’re not telling us where the increased costs are coming from.’ to ‘These are the costs. These are the projections. These are the financial issues the district is facing. Now, do we want to provide it the level of funding to be able to meet the educational needs this community wants?’”
  3. Engage Parents as Champions: “We tapped into our parents as champions by having a lot of community meetings, getting a lot of the issues and questions known in advance, creating a very detailed FAQ…. We had parents who volunteered to monitor social networks and posted the information on both local social networks like Nextdoor and on Facebook. We really got the parents engaged, and one of the nice things is that the parents understood the information because we’d laid it out.”

In March 2017, MPCSD achieved 79% approval of its parcel tax measure after using these approaches to improve its public engagement. The team was proactive with their community outreach and engagement, successfully merging technology solutions like OpenGov and social media with traditional in-person meetings. They made their case, successfully demonstrating the district’s needs and placing the proposal in greater context.

Furthermore, Ahmad said the team realized the need for stronger communication going forward. “We also understand that this discussion is going to be ongoing…. So we believe having a platform that people understand and can readily access is going to be really important for our ongoing communication over time so that people feel well connected and that their finances are being managed well.”

Click here to watch a recording of the 30-minute webinar.

Autumn Carter leads Government Affairs at OpenGov.

Newport, Rhode Island Partners with OpenGov to Increase Government Transparency

By | Press Releases | No Comments

New User-Friendly Site Powered by the OpenGov Smart Government Platform™ Will Make It Easier for the Public to See How Tax Dollars are Being Spent And Streamline Budgeting Process

NEWPORT, RI & REDWOOD CITY, CA– Today, the City of Newport, Rhode Island announced that it has partnered with OpenGov, the leader in government performance solutions, to improve transparency and increase access to important public information through the OpenGov platform. The OpenGov Smart Government Platform™ will allow Newport residents to use a Google-style search bar to track government spending and also make it easier for public officials to share complex financial and performance data in simple, understandable reports. The new software will enable more transparent governance and informed decision-making.

“We continually get feedback from our residents and taxpayers asking for better communication from the City administration, “ said Laura L. Sitrin, Newport’s Director of Finance and Support Services. “OpenGov is a terrific tool that will allow the City of Newport to provide detailed transactional and financial information to taxpayers in an easily understood format.  People will be able to access information that is important to them. We are starting with financial information but there is the capacity to provide all kinds of data driven information. The City of Newport OpenGov site will be launched as part of our FY2018-19 Biennial Budget process in May and we are really excited to be able to use it at that time.”

The platform includes OpenGov Budget Builder™, a collaborative, cloud-based budgeting application that will streamline the budgeting process for Newport officials and eliminate the need for complicated and antiquated Excel spreadsheets as they plan the city’s $138 million budget. Access to this information empowers internal stakeholders to conduct better analysis. Other governments already using Budget Builder in the budgeting process have reported cutting their clerical work in half. Newport’s new platform is expected to go live next month.

“It’s our mission to power more effective and accountable governments, and we’re excited to partner with Newport to harness the power of technology to increase government transparency,” said OpenGov CEO Zac Bookman. “Whether it’s a $2 purchase of office supplies or a $2 million spend on infrastructure improvements, public officials will be able to easily report and track financial information and citizens can see how their tax dollars are being spent.”

Newport’s new OpenGov platform will provide clear and interactive data visualizations, making it easier to analyze historical trends and compare spending across vendors, departments and with other governments. Officials will also be able to share this complex financial and performance data in simple, understandable reports with key stakeholders, helping to build consensus around priorities and progress within the community. In addition, residents will have the ability to download the data, and share it via email and social media.

Newport joins a growing number of governments nationwide who rely on OpenGov’s next generation cloud software. The City of Boston recently launched its updated transparency platform, “Analyze Boston” powered by the OpenGov Smart Government Platform, and both the California National Resource Association and the City of Phoenix announced their own transparency efforts to powered by OpenGov.


About Newport, RI

The City of Newport, Rhode Island was founded in 1639 at the southern end of Aquidneck Island in Narragansett Bay. Newport’s location, natural, historical and cultural resources are responsible for a thriving tourism industry. From its early years when commerce involved the whale-oil trade, to today’s highly sophisticated research in electronic submarine warfare, the seaport has continued to play a vital role in Newport’s economy. As the State’s principal tourist center and resort community, Newport is visited annually by millions of tourists who attend special events like the Volvo Race and Newport Music, Jazz and Folk Festivals; enjoy the world-class sailing; and tour the mansions, historical properties and other attractions. Newport is home to United States Navy facilities, including the Navy Warfare College and the Naval Underwater Warfare Center. Newport has the distinction of having some of the oldest operating facilities in the country, including the Redwood Library, White Horse Tavern, Touro Synagogue, Trinity Episcopal Church, Colony House and many other historical homes and buildings.


About OpenGov

OpenGov is the leader in government performance solutions: easy-to-use cloud software for better budgeting, improved reporting and operational intelligence, and comprehensive transparency and open data. OpenGov solutions give governments the right tools and relevant data for more informed decision-making and better outcomes for the public.

Over 1,400 public agencies in 48 states use OpenGov software. Founded in 2012, OpenGov customers include the State Treasurer of Ohio, the city of Minneapolis, MN; Maricopa County, AZ; and Washington, DC. OpenGov is backed by top investors Andreessen Horowitz, 8VC, and Thrive Capital and has headquarters in Redwood City, CA.




Newport Contact:
Laura Sitrin
City of Newport, RI

OpenGov Contact:
Brian Purchia
OpenGov, Inc.

West Chester, OH to Launch OpenGov Smart Government Platform™, Including OpenGov Open Data™

By | Press Releases | No Comments

New Online Platform to Provide Residents, City Officials with Access to Valuable Government Data, Increasing Transparency and Accountability

WEST CHESTER, OH & REDWOOD CITY, CA– Today, West Chester Township, Ohio announced it has partnered with OpenGov to enable more transparent governance and informed decision-making. OpenGov is the leader in government performance solutions: easy-to-use cloud software for better budgeting, improved reporting, and comprehensive open data. The West Chester Board of Trustees approved the partnership earlier this week.

OpenGov’s public platform for financial data surpasses any other competitor reviewed, according to West Chester Township Administrator Judi Boyko. Its ability to integrate non-financial data into its system and then create and display dashboards for public view is individually engineered for each of its client’s needs.

The OpenGov Smart Government Platform includes OpenGov Open DataTM, a cloud-based, open data platform designed to deliver greater, transparency and innovation to governance. The new software will improve both internal and public access to key information, such as public safety and infrastructure data. Access to this information empowers internal stakeholders to conduct better analysis, spurs innovation among private sector and nonprofit technology developers, and facilitates civic engagement. The new open data platform is expected to go live this summer.

“West Chester is excited about the launch of this open data platform for financial and non-financial data” Mrs. Boyko said. “Through this analysis and evidence based data, West Chester can transform the delivery of services; engage residents and corporate citizens; endeavor to make government operations and services more efficient and effective; and most importantly can meaningfully contribute to the quality of people’s lives.”

The township is also implementing OpenGov Budget BuilderTM, a collaborative, cloud-based budgeting application designed to streamline the budgeting process for governments and replace complicated and antiquated Excel spreadsheets. With the OpenGov Smart Government Platform, West Chester officials will have access to a single online solution to prepare budgets, report on spending against those budgets, analyze performance metrics, and keep elected officials and citizens informed on how tax dollars are being spent. West Chester is the first government in the state of Ohio to use both Budget Builder and OpenGov Open Data.

“The OpenGov Smart Government Platform will empower citizens and officials to easily access the information they need to make informed decisions, shape policy, and better understand how taxpayer dollars are being spent,” said OpenGov CEO Zac Bookman. “West Chester joins cities and towns across the state of Ohio, and the country, that recognize the power of technology to make government more effective and accountable.”

West Chester joins a growing number of agencies nationwide that rely on OpenGov’s next generation open data platform. Last month, the City of Boston launched its beta open data platform “Analyze Boston,” and both the California National Resource Association and the City of Phoenix announced plans for their own open data portals.


About OpenGov

OpenGov is the leader in government performance solutions: easy-to-use cloud software for better budgeting, improved reporting and operational intelligence, and comprehensive transparency and open data. OpenGov solutions give governments the right tools and relevant data for more informed decision-making and better outcomes for the public.

Over 1,400 public agencies in 48 states use OpenGov software. Founded in 2012, OpenGov customers include the State Treasurer of Ohio, the city of Minneapolis, MN; Maricopa County, AZ; and Washington, DC. OpenGov is backed by top investors Andreessen Horowitz, 8VC, and Thrive Capital and has headquarters in Redwood City, CA.


About West Chester, Ohio

West Chester Township is home to more than 61,000 residents and nearly 3,500 businesses strategically located between Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio. West Chester is counted among the country’s premier communities ranked five times by Money Magazine as one of “America’s Best Places to Live.” West Chester provides exceptional customer service with emphasis on integrity, fiscal responsibility and open communication.



West Chester Contact:
Barbara Wilson
West Chester Township, OH

OpenGov Contact:
Brian Purchia
OpenGov, Inc.

Give Life to Data - More Flexible Management Reporting

“Give Life to Data”: More Flexible Management Reports

By | Customer Stories, Insights | No Comments

At the recent OpenGov California Regional Leadership Summit, two presentations OpenGov Smart Government Platform users illustrated how they are successfully leveraging technology to make their data reporting more relevant to their internal staffs. Specifically, Incline Village General Improvement District (IVGID), a quasi-public agency in Incline Village and Crystal Bay, Nevada, and the City of Hayward, CA, are each using OpenGov to empower their internal personnel with the detail and historical data necessary to create customized, flexible management reports and drive informed decision-making.

Season-Driven Revenue Analysis

IVGID’s Controller Lori Pommerenck, a CPA with over 30 years of experience in the public and private sectors, spoke of the limitations of traditional ERP systems that don’t “give life to data.” She shared how quickly she can drill down into data in the OpenGov platform for immediate answers. “I use OpenGov more than our financial software when we need to answer a question,” she noted.

Located in the Lake Tahoe region, IVGID has the mandate to provide water, sewer, trash, recreational services to a mix of both visitors and tourists. Thus, part of Lori’s work involves reviewing seasonal trends for recreational activities popular in the area. Using OpenGov, she and her team illustrate and analyze historical data and trends in tourism such as ski visits and golf rounds. As weather variability impacts these activities, OpenGov makes it possible for the staff to compare trends with weather patterns and project future recreation revenue in easy-to-understand charts. Finally, Lori spoke highly of the OpenGov team. From their overall responsiveness, quick tech updates, and continuous opportunities to learn through webinars and networking events. She expressed that she is “very pleased” with the successful partnership.

On-Demand Data and Flexible Management Reports

Hayward’s Finance Director, Dustin Claussen, is a finance expert with over a decade of experience working in public and non-profit sectors. The use case he presented also focused on the internal benefits of the OpenGov platform. Given the city’s limited resources and growing service demands – a reality other municipalities know all too well – the city is working to increase its department heads’ engagement with critical, relevant data that impacts their work. He noted that the platform’s ability to give them on-demand data and flexible management reports was empowering for the city’s staff, reducing their reliance on the finance team to retrieve reports. Dustin praised OpenGov’s ease of use and its “effective, high-quality service.” He pointed out the passion for innovation shared by his city and OpenGov’s team, and he spoke of how innovation empowered his departmental staff to access and customize their own data.

The OpenGov network is always expanding and providing solutions for public sector entities across the country. We look forward to bringing public sector leaders together at future Regional Leadership Summits throughout the country.

The Future of Open Data

Part II – The Open Data Future: Interview with Joel Natividad

By | Insights | No Comments

Editor’s Note: On the eve of the one-year anniversary of OpenGov acquiring open data leader Ontodia, we spoke with Ontodia’s Founder and OpenGov Director of Open Data Joel Natividad about the future of open data. Joel is a member of the CKAN Association’s Steering Group, a true innovator, and an influential thought-leader in the field. Here, he discusses open data’s meaning, relevance, and the path forward towards greater usability.

Part I of our interview explored the concept of open data and its future, asking “What is open data?” Part II, below, continues the conversation by exploring open data’s future use and implementation.

PART II: What is the Next Generation of Open Data?


Who out there is leading the pack with their open data initiative?

No single entity comes right to mind as the “poster child” for open data. There are glimmers in smaller jurisdictions that don’t have to deal with all the “legacy issues” that can be hurdles to innovation. Places in Eastern Europe are doing open data well; Moldova, has actually been celebrated as an exemplar internationally.

Are there hurdles to effective implementation that are causing municipalities to miss the mark?

When open data first emerged, the whole premise was to just publish the data first and that innovation would follow. That didn’t happen. Because those expectations were not met, there has been some level of disillusionment among some early adopters. There’s a lot of talk about how hackathons haven’t delivered on the promise of open data – now a lot of cities and jurisdictions are adopting a curated “challenge format” instead of the weekend hackathon approach which was popular at first.

It is more useful to define a particular problem instead of just saying, “Here’s some data. Go do something with it.” It’s a balancing act. Some jurisdictions have just let their data initiatives and portals go, so you’ll see stale data sets. It just becomes a box to check, and afterwards, since the data is not being utilized in an operational way, it just dies on the vine.

We have to overcome some of that disillusionment, and that’s why OpenGov’s approach is very relevant. At the end of the day, the most important data set is the budget. The budget drives everything else. It funds the services that generate all this open data.

Ontodia was actually a direct product of this “data challenge” format as we were born at NYCBigApps – the largest, longest running open data challenge in the world. After we won back in 2011, New York City went out of its way to help and mentor us. We were hosted at the NYU Varick Incubator. The city connected us to mentors inside and outside government, and our first commercial contract was with NYC’s Department of Education. We even received mentoring from NYU-CUSP and a research contract with DARPA with their coaching. Without this support and the great civictech ecosystem here in NYC – including BetaNYC, Civic Hall, etc – Ontodia wouldn’t have survived for 5 years as a boot-strapped start-up before we joined OpenGov.

So are there initiatives out there now that can provide a glimpse into the future of open data?

A transition is underway. Analyze Boston is a great concrete example of that.

Analyze Boston originated as a response to the Knight Foundation’s library challenge, which sought to examine the role of libraries and curators in the digital age. Instead of curating knowledge on dead trees, how can librarians also curate and catalog the data governments produce? Analyze Boston seeks to effectively catalog not just public data, but their accompanying insights.

This is a perfect example of operationalizing data. Boston rebranded its open data portal as “Analyze Boston.” That is itself a call to action, to analyze. With this clean, curated data, what insights can we gain? Not only should we catalog the data, but we should also catalog the insights. The project is agile, in that there have been rounds of improvements after internal beta launches, and it is moving toward a full public launch this spring. That will generate additional feedback for improvement.

The emergence of CDOs in cities is another real trend that provides a glimpse of the future of open data. This shows that data is beginning to be treated as a real infrastructure asset.

What about non-technical local government management? For instance, how could a Finance Director leverage and operationalize open data?

It’s good to remember that when the computer revolution first started, the IT function originally came up as a function of the Finance Director. IT staff originally reported to the CFO because the first automated systems were accounting systems. Eventually, over time, IT became its own function. I think we’re going through a similar arc now with open data – but in reverse. Currently, it is generally understood that data and IT are separate functions, but we will probably see some convergence.

At the ground level, we need to prioritize the kind of data we gather so that it directly relates to the budget. Property taxes, parcel data, permits – those are examples of high-value data and they have finance as well as classical open data components. We need to prioritize those data sets that share common financial lineage with the budget. Doing so makes it easier for a Finance Director to answer, questions like “Why do I care about open data?”

Whereas some consider open data a “feel-good” type of affair, it goes beyond meeting a transparency responsibility once its operationalized. We need to quantify non-financial data and link it with the financial data so that everybody cares. Everybody can start measuring not just the numbers, but how the budget supports the services the data describes.

There have been critiques of open data portals. For example, some think they are unengaging, difficult to navigate, or too static. What’s your perspective on those critiques?

A lot of the critiques are valid, to be candid, because we are still in the early days of open data. There was recently an open letter to the open data community from Chief Data Officers concerning what is lacking right now in terms of treating open data as infrastructure.

There are still gaps, but the great thing about the way we’re working now, is that we’re working with the community in a standards-based, open-source context to address those gaps. It’s not just OpenGov building and addressing them. It’s a wide community of innovators and governments working together. For example, the city of Karlsrühe in Germany built a better search engine for their open data. They built it for their own purposes, but contributed it to the wider open source CKAN community. We can take that from Karlsrühe and apply it in Boston.

This innovation ecosystem is what is exciting about the CKAN community. And it allows cities to focus on collaboration and better performance without needing to worry about running or administering the platform.

Can you discuss how open data technologies can be useful, useable, and used?

The key to making open data useful and used is in adopting the same techniques that made other technologies successful. I often compare it to the early days of the internet in the mid-90s. At the time, connecting to the Internet was something only hackers did. Then AOL came along and made it easy for anybody with a CD-ROM drive to have access. Even so, it was still somewhat of a walled garden that AOL curated. But it achieved the purpose of exposing non-technical people to the potential of the internet.

I think the first generation of open data is just like that. Many jurisdictions have tested the waters of open data using proprietary technologies. They concentrated more on ease-of-use and how it integrated with their back-end systems, rather than treating it as an infrastructure component or strategic asset. They’ve built the walled gardens.

We’re adopting the same arc to ease into open data, and now people are starting to better understand its potential.

Read Part I of the interview here.

Stronger Public Sector Budgeting

Stronger Public Sector Budgeting: Webinar Takeaways

By | Customer Stories, Finance Officer's Desk, Insights | No Comments

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of moderating an incredible webinar about public sector budgeting: “Budgeting for Success Amid Uncertainty.” Veteran Finance Directors Bill Statler (retired from San Luis Obispo, California); Boulder City, Nevada’s Finance Director Hyun Kim; and OpenGov’s VP of Government Finance Solutions Mike McCann (retired from Ukiah, California) each shared their perspectives based on their professional expertise and experiences as local finance directors.

Nearly half of all U.S. states are facing revenue shortfalls this year. As governments actively face the near-term prospect of either an economic downturn or the one of the longest growth periods in our nation’s history, the panelists discussed the natural challenges associated with budgeting effectively in such uncertain economic environments –both strong and weak environments. The session melded theory with practice, focusing on providing insights and solutions. In an era compelling governments to constantly do more with less, they noted that modernizing public sector budgeting and planning approaches would be critical to achieving success.

Preparing for the Next Downturn

Bill Statler spoke specifically to strategies for preparing for the next economic downturn. While most local governments have recovered from the Great Recession and have experienced recent growth, future downturns and other uncertainties are inevitable. Those organizations that are planning now are best-equipped to succeed through future challenges. “If you can’t prepare for these in the best of times, when can you?” Statler posited.

He honed in on specific challenges, including economic outlook, unaddressed infrastructure needs, and pensions and retiree health care. To address them proactively, he suggested five strategies for ensuring long-term fiscal health:

  1. Engage your community and align resources with priorities. “At the end of the day, it’s not about the numbers, it’s about the community,” Statler said. The governing body must lead the way while engaging the community early.
  2. Use your favorable results for one-time purposes. Fund capital improvements you deferred and address unfunded liabilities. He said, “Today is your base,” which means there is no catching up. Operate from your current reality and minimize program expansion until your infrastructure plan is caught up and liabilities are sufficiently funded.
  3. Implement fiscal policies. Fiscal policies (such as balanced budget, CIP management, minimum fund balance, etc.) are preventative and curative. According to Statler, they are your “guiding North Star,” providing continuity and articulating organizational values when the organization is under less stress. “If you have a notion of where you want to be, your chances of getting there are significantly enhanced.”
  4. Plan for the long-term. Financial planning forces you to think about factors that affect your fiscal health. Forecasts provide a powerful context to gauge how you are doing, and how best to frame policy decisions for what lies ahead.
  5. Create a contingency plan. What is your strategy? A clear response plan and guidelines, communicated to both residents and internal staff, will enable you to respond to adverse circumstances smoothly. Identify triggers for implementing the plan and engage employees early on when seeking solutions.

Planning for Change, a Case Study

Hyun Kim spoke of how Boulder City, Nevada has navigated post-recession dynamics to while striving for long-term fiscal sustainability. His federally-planned city – originally founded to house Hoover Dam construction workers – grappled with how to do more with less while also anticipating an inevitable growth slowdown. While tourism provides opportunities, Boulder City faces aging demographics that can’t fund growth in perpetuity due to strict growth ordinances.

Beyond demographics, Kim spoke of very practical budget process concerns. He arrived in his position in the middle of its budget season, and he was unfamiliar with the City’s existing Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system. Thus, he faced firm budget deadlines amid ever-shifting circumstances such as ongoing labor negotiations and personnel shifts – all while trying to navigate a new ERP system.

He discussed the benefits of long-term planning and leveraging non-traditional approaches within the public sector. For instance, by leveraging cloud technology, he said his team has realized operating and cost efficiencies. In addition to other workflow processes, his team started using OpenGov’s cloud-based budgeting solution, which he said allowed him to leverage existing ERP data through a simpler interface. Whereas static spreadsheets would be stale by the time they made it to council, the new software provided solutions that were “living” – allowing for automatic updates, collaboration, and a faster online process. “We were able to see changes being made in a centralized spot from various departments. It saved our weekends,” he said.

Empowering Stronger Public Sector Budgeting

Mike McCann concluded with brief remarks from his own perspective as both head of OpenGov’s in-house team of finance experts on the Government Finance Solutions team and as a veteran finance director himself. He explained that he joined OpenGov for its mission – to empower more effective and accountable government. That mission exists to help everyone in the industry. He noted that the effort is centered around designing a set of solutions focused on the budget as the heart of government. As capabilities are added, the outcomes increase in turn.

If you were unable to join the live webinar on March 21st, be sure to watch it yourself for more takeaways and first-hand perspectives from seasoned professionals in the field.

Autumn Carter leads Government Affairs at OpenGov.

4 Ways to Increase Data's Value to Your Organization

4 Ways to Increase Data’s Value: Hoosier User Takeaways

By | Customer Stories, Events, Insights | No Comments

Earlier this month, eighteen public sector Hoosiers from eight local Indiana governments gathered for an OpenGov user session in Westfield, Indiana’s Grand Park Event Center. Together, my colleague, Adam Stone, and I facilitated the discussion, but the attendees – comprised of treasurers, controllers, IT Directors, municipal clerks, and elected officials – drove the discourse. Topics of the day centered around where they see governance challenges and technology best practices they can leverage to help address them. We especially focused on how to increase data’s value to their organizations.

Here are four key tips and takeaways identified by the Indiana User Group:

1. Empower Department Heads with Relevant Data and Flexible Reporting

Common among discussed challenges was frustration with legacy ERP systems when seeking to share information easily internally across departments. Attendees noted that while the notion of public sector transparency often seems to apply externally, it can also apply internally. Many department heads feel the rely on a few staff members who have the ability to access ERP systems and generate reports.

A more flexible solution, however, can increase data’s value by permitting integration with existing ERPs, enabling more up-to-date, on-demand data in a central location accessible to managers. Flexible reporting options give them what they need when they need it. The group noted that often, department heads have difficulty finding time to understand their own financial data. “If you don’t know your numbers, you don’t know your business,” noted one attendee. The group shared how internal dashboards and non-financial visualizations could help educate department heads, leading them to “own” and “know” their numbers, thereby resulting in more informed decision-making.

2. Increase Data’s Value by Context

It is certainly critical for internal stakeholders to be able to access and understand a city’s financial data – Adam referred to this as the “framework of operational reporting,” whereby data is consumed internally. However, external understanding is just as important. Budgets can be cumbersome, and throwing mountains of data and figures out to the public without accompanying context can result in serious misinterpretations. And ultimately, budgets simply don’t work without external buy-in.

The key is to present financial information in context, reducing questions and alleviating concerns. The group discussed the value of “saved views,” which help frame data views around commonly asked questions or high-demand information. For example, cities can direct residents to exact data points when there are inquiries about what type of services the Board of Public Works supports. Saving views for the top 10 queries from the public is an easy and effective way to reduce time responding to public information requests.

Another context-building strategy we discussed was implementing a landing page that presents written answers to frequently-asked questions and links to the transparency platform. “How to” videos for citizens are also useful components of landing pages, as the videos can educate the public on everything from the nature of the general fund to how to drill down into department-level data.

3. Answer Council Questions in Real Time

Unsurprisingly, many participants had experienced or witnessed council budget sessions during which answers to questions were unavailable. While most said they had never considered using technology as a tool in that situation, most agreed that doing so could be one of the easiest ways to answer council questions in real-time. Through interactive drill-downs and easy-to-understand illustrations of the data, that information would become easier for presenters to find and for council members to understand on the spot. The enhanced engagement could also build trust between council members and staff. One participant noted of the OpenGov Platform in particular, “I definitely want to open it up during council meetings; that’s my goal.”

Another described how his council’s use of technology after the city started integrating technology into its workflows. Introducing a transparency initiative had begun largely as a way to keep a campaign promise. “But the finance department very quickly started using [the platform] selfishly to get to our own data,” he said. The finance department was already working to increase data’s value within their team, but realized they could make it meaningful for the council. “You can quite easily determine what council members’ hot points are based on the questions they ask. For example, one member was very concerned with our municipal airport. We finally created saved views and then at a council meeting just showed them all how to access the information.” He concluded, “It goes a really, really long way to improving your relationship with those individuals and also instilling trust.”

4. Use Maps to Place Data in the Context of Communities

No communities in attendance said they had utilized technology solutions for parcel reporting, but all agreed that a great deal of parcel-level information that is very meaningful. We all work and live within geographic boundaries, so it can often make sense to view financial and non-financial data within that context. We can take the data we already have and include an address that relates to it. Effective technology solutions can automatically map that. That enables the creation of visualizations like service delivery across residential, commercial, and industrial parcels, which can inform analyses. Maps can also help inform economic development policies and aid in compliance with geographic grant allocation guidelines.

The group discussed how they could map their capital projects, adding in their Chart of Accounts codes to link historical costs and future projected costs all in one visualization. They could also work on linking Chart of Accounts codes to crime, traffic, building permit, demolition data, and more. One attendee left the group particularly excited by the possibility of being able to show the growth of residential and industrial properties through mapping.

Throughout the session, participants saw the utilization of new technology platforms shift from transparency-only solutions to those that could effectively solve day-to-day operational challenges. One attendee noted, “I knew OpenGov was a great tool, but during the meeting, I realized just how much it is going to be able to do.”

Meredith Behm is a Customer Success Manager at OpenGov.

Boston Future Open Data

Part I – The Open Data Future: Interview with Joel Natividad

By | Insights | No Comments

Editor’s Note: On the eve of the one-year anniversary of OpenGov acquiring open data leader Ontodia, we spoke with Ontodia’s Founder and OpenGov Director of Open Data Joel Natividad about the future of open data. Joel is a member of the CKAN Association’s Steering Group, a true innovator, and an influential thought-leader in the field. Here, he discusses open data’s meaning, relevance, and the path forward towards greater usability.

Part I of our interview, below, explores the concept of open data and its future. Part II will continue the conversation by exploring open data’s future use and implementation.


PART I: Understanding Open Data


How do you define open data?

The common or classical understanding of open data is that it is data published for transparency purposes. Many of us are familiar with the McKinsey Global Institute study, which cited the potential of open data to create $3 trillion in annual value in the global economy. To date, we haven’t really captured that potential.

Part of the reason we have not reached that level of potential is that the main lesson we learned during the first generation of open data: it was not enough just to publish data. We found that the reality is not simply, “publish it and innovation will come.” Having gone through the first generation of open data, we’ve learned the hard way that people don’t really care about raw data. The emphasis needs to change so that we are using “open” as a verb – as in “opening data.”

And what does “opening data” actually look like?

The purpose of open data is not just public transparency. Its value is also in driving decisions inside government. By treating open data as a strategic asset, you make the data cleaner and more operational. That increase of internal utility is open data’s future, and it drives an internal cultural shift as well, whereby government is not only the publisher of the data, but also a primary beneficiary.

Opening data creates a “data of record” for all government departments, internally first, and then to share among peers. Often, government staff view open data initiatives as another unfunded mandate: they aren’t sure what the outcomes are, or fear they may accidentally share sensitive information. However, if that same data  is actively used internally, sharing and “opening data” becomes part of their normal workflow. Only then will everybody benefit. The staff benefits, the city council benefits, the public benefits. If you increase open data’s internal utility, you increase its relevance, and that is where things are heading.

What are the main drivers moving open data toward the future?

One of the things you find now, especially from the leading thinkers on 21st Century government like the Sunlight Foundation, the Government Center for Excellence at Johns Hopkins, and others, is that open data is a means to an end. The key point is that the end goal is performance management. How do you do performance management? You cannot do it without open data. Governments cannot perform well without this basic ingredient of clean, open data. At OpenGov, we are looking at it in the same way.

Joel Natividad - Future of Open Data

So what are examples of using open data for performance management?

We see the best way to operationalize open data to enhance performance is to correlate spending with outcomes. And that’s why we were so excited when Ontodia joined OpenGov, as OpenGov’s core competency was finance. Because in our mind, the most important dataset is the budget.

If we correlate and measure financial data against other data, we gain an insight of spending versus outcomes. This drives a feedback loop and enables governments to explore how they are operating; to assess whether they are efficient. They can also benchmark against other entities of the same size. What are they doing? How are their costs lower than ours?

Unlike in the private sector, the beauty of the public sector is that it actually encourages people to share notes. Not just for competition’s sake, but to learn from each other. Take Pepsi and Coke, for example. They are in competition and would never share the secret sauce. In government, that’s not the case. We want to talk to each other.

How do non-government organizations like OpenGov fit into the future of open data?

We offer the critical participation component. We work from the open-sourced, standards-based project CKAN (Comprehensive Knowledge Archive Network), which is the predominant solution for large governments. I say “large governments” because before OpenGov, you needed dedicated staff to stand up CKAN-based open data portals. We are essentially productizing CKAN, and including value-added applications that allow municipal-level personnel – especially non-programmers – to concentrate on the hard work of opening the data, rather than running a data portal. Our standards-based solution allows for innovation and enables conversation among cities.

The good thing is that, in general, people now agree that governments should treat data as infrastructure. When municipal systems were first built, they weren’t built with open data in mind. They weren’t designed to have common linkages or data standards. But that transition is underway, and OpenGov is facilitating that transition.

Is it currently possible to measure or quantify tangible benefits of open data?

Right now the easiest way to measure the return on investment or open data’s payback is in calculating the costs of complying with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and public records requests. Those requests are often onerous, redundant, and expensive. Through the utilization of open data, you can dramatically reduce your FOIA processing costs. That’s an easy one.

I always go back to prioritizing data and ensuring a linkage to the budget. If we operationalize data and correlate it to the budget, it will absolutely help cities achieve data-driven government. It’s not just a nicer way to understand the budget or get away from dealing with ERP reports. While there’s no easy measure of it, if you connect the data to high-value budget priorities, it leads to operational efficiencies.

Does the public have a responsibility in an open data “ecosystem”?

Yes. Part of the open data challenge is educating the public about that responsibility. For example, as Analyze Boston’s open data initiative enters its second phase, it includes a public education campaign. That is part of making data useful. If you think back to when 311 was introduced, it gave the public a way to interact with government using digital means. Software consumed the first generation of open data. But to make it both useful to and used by the common consumer, I think you have to correlate it to the budget. Then people will start to care.

What if, instead of giving people a piece of paper that shows how much they need to pay in property tax, we give them something that shows just what they are getting in return? That’s why I’m so excited about the potential of tying financial data to budget data. We can quantify for people – at a neighborhood level – how much the city has allocated on their behalf for infrastructure and other services. By completing this picture, citizens will come to care about open data. Ultimately, this will help to restore the lost trust in government.

Read Part II of the interview here.