What do Boston, Mass., and Barcelona, Spain have in common with consumer internet platforms like Yelp and Zillow?
They’re taking advantage of a growing open-data trend.  Along with all the ways it’s reshaping business, it’s beginning also to reshape relationships between government agencies at all levels—city, state, federal. Socrata, a privately-held government-data platform provider based in Seattle, was one of the first to see the potential of open data. The company bills itself as a “data platform for open government”—a software-as-a-service firm entirely focused on the public sector. According to Socrata’s website, its “cloud-based solution helps government organizations host data online, make data-driven decisions, operate more efficiently, and share insights with citizens.” Those are things all of us should want to see happen.
What is open data? According to a Gartner report, “The Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for Government in 2016,” it means “license-free data available in machine-readable formats to anyone who has the right to access it without requirement for identification or registration.” The data becomes more valuable when, as often happens, its host (like Socrata, acting for governments) enables applications made by others to take advantage of it. When that happens, you don’t need permission to build all kinds of capabilities to generate insights, whether you’re a company, a government agency, or just an interested or concerned citizen.
The amount of data generated digitally continues to grow, says Rick Howard, an analyst at Gartner and one of the authors of the report. Open standards such as HTTP and HTML have made data easily consumable and machine-readable. He sees open government as a clear public good. “This data is acquired through government operations supported by taxpayer dollars, so it really belongs to the public. There are ethical concerns, legal boundaries, and issues such as privacy and confidentiality involved when using open data, but tremendous knowledge and insight can be gained from it.”
There are three key open-data government trends, explains Howard. The first, just starting, involves the creation of data marketplaces that combine information from various sources. A second trend is a new commitment to performance management at various levels of government, such as whether garbage trucks are running on time or an infrastructure project is within its budget. Finally, a growing number of websites, such as—a collaboration between Datawheel, Deloitte, and the MIT Media Lab—take a “story telling” approach to data in order to make information about complex issues like urban homelessness more approachable and understandable.
Open Data: Unlocking Innovation and Performance with Liquid Information,” a 2013 McKinsey report, estimated the economic value of open data in the global economy to be $3-5 trillion dollars annually just in seven industries: education, transportation, consumer products, electricity, oil & gas, healthcare, and consumer finance. Kevin Merritt, founder and chief executive of Socrata, says companies are taking advantage of open data to create new businesses or expand the reach of existing ones. Zillow, for example, relies on government data on local housing markets.
socrata-homeopage-photoNew York-based Site Compli exists entirely on the back of open data with a service that tells a building owner when it’s time to have an elevator or HVAC system inspected, or when a fire marshal should come to make sure passageways are properly cleared. The company makes money by selling the alert service and by serving as a lead generator for inspection and maintenance people. The concept could be duplicated in other industries, says Merritt.
“Most businesses today, whether in financial services, automotive, packaged goods, use data to make business decisions,” says Merritt. What’s changing is that governments are embracing this approach.
Cities use open data to power Internet of Things efforts. In Barcelona, says Merritt, trash cans have sensors. “The sensor knows how full the trash can is, its temperature, or if it’s been kicked over. This information gives the sanitation department a real-time view of the city. It can dispatch trucks depending on need. If a bin is only half full, a truck may decide to skip it.”
Or take Eindhoven, Netherlands. Sensors there can pick up the temperature under street lights, and the volume of noise, explained Merritt. The police use this information for crowd control. If too many people gather in one spot, the city can brighten the lights to disperse the group, or maybe even to help them see better.
“Officials need to measure what’s going on in their jurisdictions,” explains Merritt. “They not only want to gauge how they’re performing in the absolute, but they want to benchmark themselves against each other.” Boston and Detroit use sensors in city-owned snowplows. To get the most out of this data, they rank major roads so the important ones are cleared first.
The trend has made it easier for citizens to get important info. Until now, most government data has only been available in unwieldy paper documents. “Unless you were an economist,” says Merritt, “it was pretty difficult to understand what was going on with government financial data.”
Socrata’s Public Finance Suite allows cities, counties, states, and federal agencies to put information online in a consumer-friendly platform. Even a senior citizen can navigate it.
“We’ve worked with Yelp and some health inspectors,” says Merritt. “We came up with a data standard called LIVES: Local Inspector Value Entry. Basically it’s a way to show how the letter grade given to a restaurant in by health inspectors in New York is equivalent to the number rating in San Francisco. We’re able to marshal that information into sites like Yelp.”
Another use of open data is in parking meters, which are increasingly tied to the Internet of Things. “Cities are under enormous budget constraints,” says Merritt. “They’re looking for ways to be more efficient and generate non tax-related revenue. By equipping their meters with IoT technology, they can turn off parking meters when the street sweeping truck is about go by, and turn them on again as soon as it passes. This boosts meter revenue and keeps local businesses happy, because customers can park.”
Until recently, most cities in the U.S. spent money to create mobile apps for things like transit schedules. This was costly and the result was often poor. “Third parties can do this better,” says Merritt. “If cities spend a fraction of the money to make the data available on an open platform, companies like Embark or City Map or Google can provide a much better customer experience, and greater innovation, than cities ever could.” One of Socrata’s latest offerings is a public safety solution designed to allow police to voluntarily share operational and incident data with the community.
Merritt sees three prime beneficiaries of open data. First are technical types: programmers, developers, and entrepreneurs who know how to use an API (application programming interface). Second are professionals, journalists, economists, researchers, scientists, and academics. Third are ordinary citizens who are accustomed to getting news and information from social media and the Web. For them, data must be presented in a friendly format. Gartner’s Howard refers to it as “storytelling.”

An unexpected fourth group of beneficiaries, says Merritt, are government workers. “Data democratization enables the right people inside (and outside) government to access data when and where they need it, empowers non-technical government employees (and citizens) to interpret data, and it helps use data to analyze and solve a broad array of problems. Government workers have done the hard work getting data ready for the public—why not benefit from it themselves?”