6 years, 7 months ago

US Regional, Metropolitan Area Public Sector “Open Data” Synergies, Opportunities, Challenges

"Open Data" is the current stage of enlightenment for the continually-advancing public sector "egovernment" objective – collecting, standardizing, governing and exposing previously inaccessible public data from internal government systems and datastores.  The mandate comes both from newer official government directives and policies, as well as long-standing IT investment control and information-sharing objectives. These mandates are not only driven by public sector mission and legislative priorities, but by the public – citizens, civic volunteers, entrepreneurs, businesses, non-profits, etc., all of whom are pushing the boundaries for access to and utilization of taxpayer-funded data collections.

Frequently, the public, commercial and government stakeholders align across regional interests, particularly where the civilian, corporate and public sector population is quite transient, crossing borders and collaborating on initiatives for work, school, business trade and many other purposes.  This is the case, for recent example, in and around the Washington DC Metropolitan Region; a.k.a. the "National Capitol Region" (NCR) or "DMV", inclusive of Baltimore and the Maryland suburban counties, DC and Northern Virginia.

Current dialogue among leadership of the Federal, Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia (DMV) regional “Open Data” government community sheds light on the challenges and opportunities that individual jurisdictions face (not just around DC), in establishing Open Data capabilities and services – both public-facing, and as part of the inward-facing “information sharing” context within their own agencies.  Open Data is also a very different conversation, when held at a purely local level, vs. statewide or across an entire metropolitan region.

This kind of dialogue, when pursued across and among regional, public sector jurisdictions, can advance goals including:

  1. Introduction of jurisdictional or municipal leaders and stakeholders to other regional and Federal government stakeholders –  for support, collaboration and best practices as Open Data Programs mature;
  2. Raising awareness of the interest and potential opportunities for regional, cross-jurisdiction or multi-sector Open Data collaboration and leadership opportunities; and
  3. “Seeding” collaborative, recurring dialogue regarding Open Data challenges and opportunities as experienced at the government Agency or Department level, setting the stage for additional information-sharing and reuse of best practices, tools and methods.

In short, advancing Open Data outcomes comes with an Information-Sharing mindset – this mindset a very mature perspective already embodied in the Federal Government and Homeland Security/Emergency Response community, particularly via programs such as the PM-ISE and standards such as NIEM. Open Data is more than a technology, solution or service – it’s a philosophy of constituent engagement that includes many stakeholders, approaches, guidance and tools. 

­In dialogue around the NCR/DMV, and with available local Federal leadership (i.e. GSA’s Open Government Initiatives), the state of Open Data initiatives appears to be evolving quickly, led primarily by very active Maryland (State, Montgomery County, Baltimore) initiatives, and with rapid progress in DC; Virginia (at a local, NOVA perspective) is also progressing, with its own share of Open Data hackathons, civic interest groups, emerging industry interest groups, and municipal initiatives, including a unique "Community Indicators Program" in Alexandria, VA

For a complete list of the current status of government open data initiatives, see this visualization by the Sunlight Foundation, and this recent report by NASCIO.

There does seem to be a curious imbalance between those jurisdictions recognized for IT/Digital excellence (the more "traditional" eGovernment awards) – and those recognized (in other awards) specifically for "Open Data" initiatives…you’ll find numerous jurisdictions noted prominently as Digital County Survey winners have no official, planned Open Data program or assets. This is likely due primarily to the resource challenges of shaping progressive or "transformed" internal information-sharing, data services & governance out of the complexities of decades of legacy IT investments. Or perhaps due to the "urban transit" effect – i.e. civic open data activism driven mainly by urban, mass transit-connected constituents (which doesn’t yet exist in the exurbs).

The Digital Counties awards themselves only recently indicated increased focus among respondents in "Open Data" as of the 2014 survey, for 2015 – well behind other constituent service and IT modernization priorities, but moving up.

2014 Top Ten Technologies and Initiatives (from the Digital Counties Survey) which are likely to have an increased focus in the next year:

  1. Cyber Security
  2. Hire & Retain Competent IT Personnel
  3. Shared Services
  4. Budget and Cost Control
  5. Mobility / Mobile Applications
  6. Disaster Recovery/Continuity of Operations
  7. Open Government/ Transparency/ Open Data
  8. Virtualization: Server, Desktop/Client, Storage, Applications; and Portal/E-government
  9. Broadband & Connectivity
  10. Governance, Data Center Consolidation and Cloud Computing

While regional Open Data conversations tend to start with a balanced "challenges vs. opportunities" agenda, by far the majority of discussion focuses quickly to distinct, jurisdictional or agency challenges and very local solutions (i.e. fix the near-term problems), with discussion about “opportunities” primarily focused on "selling" and building agency-specific Open Data programs altogether.  An example of a new program recently announced, that will benefit from this kind of collaboration, comes from this recent Open Data Program press release by DC’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (DC OCTO).

Key, Persistent Public Sector Open Data Challenges and Opportunities Being Discussed Around the DC Region

Here are some of the themes about which the NCR/DMV Open Data Community are engaged in dialogue:

  1. Significant, competing priorities for the IT Department(s) – particularly around ongoing modernization/transformation initiatives, upgrading or converting older systems and data to new.  This translates to the majority of subject matter experts (at the intersection of data and technology requirements) fully consumed with existing efforts, vs. being able to be allocated for new, Open Data initiatives. This also highlights the need for a careful “carrot and stick” balance in advocating or mandating program and IT investment activities to adopt Open Data architectural principles (that then translate to actual data management changes).  The balance could be achieved via a standard prioritization process that evaluates the scope of need against the scope of supply parameters, and results in the most informed implementation decisions. This challenge is also a clarion call for increased Enterprise Architecture engagement, where Open Data success relies on very complex, existing IT and Business Information Management environments.
  2. Data management over the lifecycle of “open data” – from collection to quality maintenance, is continually expressed as a significant challenge, that requires a centralized business process and capability strategy, which may often develop in parallel with and as a compliment to (i.e. “riding the coattails) a more traditional “egovernment” initiative (i.e. provision of digital citizen services). A trend seems to be, to focus on the services and process strategy, and the data will follow (starting with the necessary inventorying of data assets and identification of key POCs).  “Overwhelming” data quality/freshness/redundancy issues seem to be quickly driving solutions to API access, vs. posting and re-posting of dataset copies. It’s been suggested several times, to separate the data “opening” goals from the “inventorying” goals – focus on rationally-accommodated need.
  3. Maintaining interest, support, the “will” to make it happen – both public and internal.  This is a key, recurring challenge (not only for Public Sector agencies and stakeholders, but also for civic groups), requiring concentrated (focused) promotion – focusing on very visual (vs. “raw” data), useful, value-enabling (i.e. with definitive business case support) results, and promoting to specific stakeholder groups, internal first. The public stakeholder focus can be multi-dimensional, and must be carefully prioritized, as regional or industry-centric interests develop at different speeds and levels of intensity as state or local interests.
  4. A key opportunity is, as the Open Data advocate community understands, the fact that these jurisdictions do already have data contained in accessible digital repositories (particularly data warehouses), that can be extremely valuable not only to public interests, but to other, internal agency partners (both system owners and policy/planning programs). This then might obviate some concerns regarding security governance, i.e. release of sensitive information. There are opportunities for internal agency or system-owner partners both from a cost-effectiveness perspective, and from an opportunity perspective (i.e. data providing new insight for better mission delivery). It does, however, raise the need for additional agency information governance methods, to handle existing data “commingled” in new, sensitive or unanticipated ways with other agency data, and brand new data sources, particularly those from rapidly-maturing “big data” infrastructure.
  5. Getting help, moving forward – all those in the regional dialogue, (witness the resources available via the White House’s “Project Open Data” program), appear extremely willing to continue to communicate and share methods and tools to help less mature initiatives. Central repository/contact methods and simple communications governance are generally deemed necessary, so that online, point-of-need dialogue can proceed along with in-person meetups, hackathons or educational sessions. Regional, multi-jurisdictional collaboration in Open Data, from a subject-matter perspective, seems most pressing or at least obvious in these three domains (besides the existing homeland security/emergency management collaborations):
  • transportation (including transit, traffic, trails, parking)
  • environment
  • innovation (i.e. startups; economic development)