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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

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.

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