What Does Open Mean?
Hey, have you seen BART’s new official app?
Nope, you haven’t. Know why?
They don’t need to spend money making their own apps. They just put all their data online in an open format and everybody else goes ahead and makes apps for themselves.
What’s more, these other people do it the way they want, so BART doesn’t have to guess at what features and format its users want an app to have. App developers (who are kind of experts at this) make a bunch of apps and the people pick the one that gives them what they want. All the incentives line up!
Your county isn’t BART, I know, but there are a lot of other opportunities for posting data online in an open data format and letting people write apps to present it to the world. Like crime reports and budget data. Like building permits and food safety inspections.
But why would you want to do this? Besides the fact that you’re committed to open and transparent government by and for the people, of course.
If the data is already posted online then people won’t have to ask you for it, and when they do ask you can save time and impress them by just pointing them to the place where you have already given it to them. Can you imagine if everyone who wanted board agendas had to call you before every meeting so you could email or fax it to them?
Do you want to know who else won’t have to ask you for it? You! Think of all the times that county departments need to shuffle documents back and forth: the fire marshal, the building inspector, the assessor, the environmental health officer, the auditor, the CAO… If all of the data is always available online (maybe even data that isn’t available to the general public, for safety or privacy reasons), these departments won’t have to spend time calling, emailing, and transferring documents back and forth.
“But Geoff,” you might be thinking, “I’m not even sure what open data is.”
I’ll give you a quick overview, then I’ll give you the top four Google results.
For our purposes, data is considered to be in an open format if it’s stored online in a way that is machine readable and that anyone can access without having to buy a particular program.
That’s it! So if your county’s budget data is available in an open format, someone could write a program that synthesizes it to make it easily comprehensible to the layperson, maybe by making handsome charts and graphs and adding explanatory notes. Then anytime someone ran that program, or opened that app, it would go fetch the most recent available data (kept updated by the county) and generate the charts and graphs based on that. Or people could make maps with updated arrest data, or they could look up their neighbor’s building permit (or lack thereof).
Here are some links for leaning about open data. Go delegate someone to learn about it!