My Top Tip for Justifying your Open Data Program


As the body of data that governmental and public bodies hold continues to increase exponentially, a strong drive is under way to put more of this information in public hands. However, there is great debate over exactly where value can be found from opening up your data to the public. To take a deeper drive into this issue, I caught up with some leading thought leaders in the data and analytics space.

It is no secret that identifying the value of open data programs, and so justifying their existence, can be difficult. Niki Virani, the lead behind the City of Houston’s open data program says that “even though cities have been “doing” Open Data for a while it’s hard to quantify a dollar value ROI associated with the effort”.

Often, advocates argue that it promotes transparency, and so creates improvements in government, whereby the data ‘shines a light’ and illuminates public knowledge and engagement with organisations, leading to benefits including accountability and public participation.

Brandon Crowley, Chief Data Officer, City of Cincinnati feels that “if transparency is of interest to the entity, a [open data] policy will likely be developed and implemented in support of the transparency agenda which includes but not limited to an Open Data portal”.

For Brandon Pustejovsky, Chief Data Officer at USAID also, demonstrating immediate value can be challenging, but transparency a good way forward. “Open data is still new for most of the U.S. Government.  And the minute you start opening data is the same minute you begin identifying issues with quality, timeliness, interoperability, etc.  And that’s precisely the argument from open data advocates:  becoming transparent with (and consuming) your own data generally compels organizations to address underlying data issues in a way that benefits everyone.”

There is debate though as to how far transparency alone can provide sufficient value to underpin an open data initiative. Virani feels that “many people tout the transparency angle, and while that’s great, is it building trust in your community? Which we would argue is the goal of transparency. That’s a hard question to answer”.

Perhaps, whilst the transparency that open data brings has mainly benefits, the key to justifying the value of open data lies elsewhere. Virani highlights an alternative line of argument – “another go to for ROI is economic development”. This is where open data sets help to drive technological innovation and economic growth, with third parties utilizing the information as assets to develop new kinds of digital applications and services.

For open data to achieve this goal, it must be not only ‘open’ (i.e. available for use) but also it must be useful. As Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Chief Information Officer at the City of Boston said, “putting data up on the web is one thing, but making it useful to people is a whole different challenge.”

Putting data up on the web is one thing, but making it useful to people is a whole different challenge.

I completely agree – it isn’t enough for open data to simply be open. For it to be valuable (to the user, your organisation, and society at large), your open data program should produce useful data, in a useful manner. Franklin-Hodge notes a potential way forward here, as the City of Boston is “working with the Boston Public Library to catalog our open data, and to develop public programs in the libraries to educate people about it.”

Pustejovsky agrees, he sees the potential for value as “somewhat akin to giving a child a chemistry or electronics set.  It may not look attractive on the surface, but it has the potential to yield new and profound insights. The same is true for data. The real question is whether they will take the effort to generate that insight or opt for the digital device that has already generated the insight for them.”

Virani however sounds a note of caution “as Waldo Jaquith says, government isn’t interested in someone else getting rich off of their data. The real benefit of open data is breaking down siloes that exist between departments and educate employees and citizen about how their city works.”

This divergence of opinion, I think, cuts to the heart of the matter, and brings me to my top tip to justify your open data program – the value of open data may vary between different organisations, depending on their priorities. Ultimately, the most important lesson is that, in order to be successful, an open data program must tie in with the goals and aspirations of the body to which it will belong. Therefore, your justification must closely align with, and become an enabler of the priorities of your organization, rather than attempting to become a priority in itself.

James Bowater, Director, Corinium Global Intelligence. For enquiries email: [email protected]


This post was originally published on Data Digest. For more content related to big data, innovation and analytics, visit



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