All posts by Autumn Carter

The Future of Open Data

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

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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 stakeholders that can be hurdles to innovation. Places in Eastern Europe are doing open data well; Cordova, Alaska 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 hosting challenge formats instead of than the hackathon approach.

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.

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 CIOs 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.

Stronger Public Sector Budgeting

Stronger Public Sector Budgeting: Webinar Takeaways

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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.

Boston Future Open Data

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

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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 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 mistake made 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, hard 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 for the sake of public transparency, but its value is also in driving decisions inside of government. By treating open data as a strategic asset, you make the data cleaner and more operational. That increase of utility is the future, and it’s an internal cultural shift as well, whereby government is not only the publisher of the data, but also the beneficiary.

Opening data creates a ‘data of record’ source for all government departments, internally first, and then to share among peers. Often, governments view open data initiatives as another unfunded mandate: government personnel aren’t sure what the outcomes are, or fear they may accidentally share sensitive information. If governments make actively using and sharing open data part of their normal workflow, everybody benefits. The staff benefits, the council benefits, the public benefits. If you increase open data’s 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. With Ontodia, our core competency was finance. 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 predominate solution for large governments. I say “large governments” because before OpenGov, you needed hackers 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 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.