Governments produce a lot of information – in fact, they are historically the largest producers of information in society. This information comes in all different types and sizes, and when released publicly can produce all different types of value. There is information that is produced about government (like laws), for government (like statistics and scientific research), and by government (like meeting minutes, emails, and spending data). Each has the potential to generate value when made public, and we’ve included some examples to help this make sense.
Information about your government includes all the details of how it’s supposed to work – this is legal data and includes laws, policies, rules, and regulations. On a personal level, you need to know the law because it applies to you even if you don’t! However, this is also helpful if you’re concerned about what your neighbor is doing – or the company down the street – or even your government. If you can look it up, then you can figure out if what they’re doing is legal or not — and if it’s your government that you’re worried about, knowing all the laws, rules, regulations, and policies makes you more powerful! Without this information, you can’t make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to do – you can’t hold them to account and make sure they’re acting with integrity. Finally, if you want to change the laws, you really need to know what they say now, how they’re made, and how you can get involved in the process. All of these things become possible when legal data is freely available.
Statistical, geographic, and scientific information are produced by your government to help it make better decisions. This includes census data, maps, and scientific research. Census data can boost the economy and make life better for your neighbors by enabling companies and nonprofits to better understand the population and find under-served markets or develop new products, services, or solutions. Map data is all the rage today – it seems like every app on a smart phone – and a lot of regular websites want to help you find things that are near you and show them to you on a map. While governments may not have the best looking maps, they will definitely have a lot of map-related information, like political boundaries, zoning information, train tracks, and details on water flow. Scientific research has obvious benefits to relevant scientific communities, but it can also create new business models. NASA does a lot of this – they call them spinoffs and it’s kind of surprising how many modern conveniences started with NASA.
The information that you government creates while performing a service consists of administrative and operational information. This includes meeting minutes, emails, and spending data, but also corporate tax returns, police records and crime data, and everything that happens at the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles). This information can tell you a lot about how your country or community is functioning: How many arrests for what crimes? How much money are companies paying on their taxes? How many registered drivers and vehicles are there on the road? On the administrative side, it can also tell you how government decisions are made so you can verify that it’s done properly and then hold your government to account if you should find something off. This is the information that transparency and accountability advocates tend to focus on.
For an interesting perspective on how these different types of data make the point of open government unclear, see Yu and Robinson’s paper, The New Ambiguity of ‘Open Government.’