If your government wants to gain full benefit from releasing its data, it needs to do so in a way that makes sure it gets to the people that care about that data. This seems obvious when you hear it, but it isn’t always obvious when you’re sitting inside government with some really cool data that you just want to share!! There are three things an open government should do at this moment. The first is to figure out who cares about the data (let’s assume it’s you). The second is to figure out how to connect with you, and the third is to figure out how to make the data easily available to you. Because there are so many ways that people get information today, it’s important for your government to stay up to date with new technology. Then, they can provide you with up to date information that you want to receive, in the way that you want to receive it!
So, your government’s first problem is to find people that care. It’s helpful to realize that there are very few things that everyone cares about, but there is almost always someone – and probably even a community of people, that care about any specific set of information. These are the people that care – and the ones that can make a difference. Finding these people is really more art than science, but there are some general guidelines that will help. First, keep in mind that the people that care are the ones that stand to benefit from the data. Again, this seems really simple, but it’s also easy to forget. The way you determine who stands to benefit is to start with the desired goal of releasing the data. If it’s economic development, the people who care are probably in a position to make money off it. If it’s government accountability, they’re probably acting as a watchdog on government activities, and so will have the motivation and resources to analyze the data. If it’s research data, they probably do research in that same field of study. It is the real value that people stand to gain that makes the data important to them. If your government follows this trail, it will find what it seeks.
The next complexity is determining how to connect with the people that care. In today’s world, this is so much easier than it used to be. Almost any community will have a website, Facebook group, or ongoing Twitter discussion where the key players can be found, important events are advertised, and current community concerns are aired. In less tech-friendly parts of the world, there are most likely associations, community groups, and charity organizations that will be happy to help your government find the right people. This will be easier if your government plays nicely however. An open government will not show up in a community and expect anyone to care, just as you wouldn’t show join a club and expect to be President at the first meeting. Instead, you play nicely. You join in on conversations. You make friends. You ask for advice and assistance when appropriate, but you also help other people in the community. In short, you learn how the community operates.
As your government is doing this, the final point becomes obvious. The way to make the information available to the community is no longer a guess but instead a natural part of the outreach that they’ve been doing. In fact, when it comes time to reach to new communities, expand the current community, improve the data, or launch something new, your government will no longer be acting alone because it will have created a community of supporters around the data. This also serves to provide sustainability for the release of the data. If no one is using it, then why would your government continue to make it available?
The need to stay connected with the people that care is one of the best reasons for governments to stay up to date with technology. If a community’s discussion moves to Facebook or Twitter and yet your government is restricted from visiting those sites because of outdated IT policies, the connection is broken. As citizens’ expectations change in terms of how they receive information, government needs to stay on top of this — meeting citizens where they are to make it as easy as possible to remain connected to their government.
A much-quoted example is that of weather data in the United States. All weather information that is used for weather broadcasts in newspapers, radio, and television as well as weather apps on desktops and mobile phones comes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency of the United States government. They release this information for free, and in return the US benefits from an industry that is valued at $31.5 billion dollars annually (details on page 13). Needless to say, this information needs to be readily available in forms that are readable by both humans and computers so that weather forecasters can access the raw data and make their predictions and so that automated systems that serve weather data through the Internet can access it automatically and in real-time.
A counter example comes from the state of Rajasthan, India where information that is intended to root out corruption needs to reach the average citizen and civil society groups that will analyze the information. This is difficult as the literacy rate is low, and the resulting successful model (with the civil society organization MKSS acting as arbiter) is to make the official financial information available for photocopying (at or near cost), and then publicly post the information on large posters or painted directly on the walls of public buildings in order to hold public discussions and verify the legitimacy of the incurred expenses (a UN report on this).