Sharing Government Data in a Way it Can Be Useful for Everyone

Sharing Government Data in a Way it Can Be Useful for Everyone

There’s no Statue of Liberty (yet) welcoming government data to the Home of the Free and the Land of the Brave. But if there was, this might be the inscription on it.

The rise of the Internet and the demand for more open government has resulted in initiatives such as the U.S. government’s database sharing site. To cite just a few examples, with this data:

  • Businesses can use Census data on housing, income and education to better plan everything from store locations to hiring, sales and production.
  • Consumers can track the status of product recalls, government rankings of health care providers or crime rates when looking for housing.
  • Citizen or advocacy groups can track the status of legislation, government contracts and political contributions.
  • Investors, planners, policymakers and interest groups can use economic information such as gross national product to measure economic growth, and better plan government and public investment and economic policies.

To meet the rising demand for data and government “transparency,” as of 2012 at least forty-three governments and international organizations worldwide have made more than one million data sets available, in areas ranging from education to health, energy and commerce.

Not Just Data: Insights

But pre-chosen subsets of data from a government agency are just snippets of reality. They may not contain all the data a user may need or present it in an easily usable format. These partial data sets in unusable formats make it difficult, if not impossible, to combine different forms of data in creative ways. It is such “mashups” that unleash insights from data, allowing users to answer new questions in new and unpredictable ways.

Using “mashups,” for example:

  • Citizen advocates can overlap emissions and weather data on maps to identify sources of pollution for remedial action.
  • The unemployed can use the Employment Market Explorer app, a Google Maps mashup, to compare unemployment rates among communities.
  • Home buyers can view a database of crime by type before choosing a neighborhood in which to     look for a home.
  • Parents in Chicago can assess their child’s chances of getting into a selective public school based on their address.
  • Consumers can check the quality ratings of care facilities before choosing a provider for an aging parent.
  • Health care providers, vaccine producers or payers can track disease outbreaks in real time.
  • Economists can use financial databases to build sophisticated models to forecast market prices and employment levels.

Creating each of these useful applications requires more than pre-chosen subsets of information for a government agency, provided in whatever format the agency chose. Translating raw data into insight requires that developers have access to all the available data, in a format that is easy to access and manipulate.

Free the Data

What does this mean in practice? John Wonderlich, program director at the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, told CNET that data releases should follow the 8 Principles of Open Data. These require the data is 1) complete, 2) primary (as it is collected at the source), 3) timely, 4) accessible, 5) machine-processable, 6) nondiscriminatory, 7) non-proprietary, and 8) and license-free.

“Search is great, if you are looking to find information about any one thing,” he said. “But original analysis and visualization require access to data in bulk.”

In the same story, David Robinson, the associate director of the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy, echoed the point. “No one person or organization could possibly anticipate all the ways that Americans will want to analyze, reuse, or cross-reference” government data, he said. “And no one person or organization needs to do so, as long as the data itself is readily available.”

Of all the database formats, the most standard, universally accepted and easiest to work with is the original relational format in which most data was created. Organizations of every size own and must share relational databases. They also have administrators familiar with the industry-standard SQL query language. This makes it easy for them, and others, to create mashups that present the data in new, creative and visual ways to help consumers, businesses and government make better decisions.

Needed: Data Sharing

Before developers can create mash-ups from relational data, they have to receive it. Currently, that often requires clumsy and hard to use FTP software, custom programming, data reformatting and negotiating complex security requirements with data users.

Our patented DataPortal lets you securely share databases of any size over the Internet through an intuitive point-and-click interface.  Unlike other solutions that require data to be reduced to flat files or another “least common denominator,” DataPortal retains the table structures required to process database queries and the table references that describe the relationship among data in various tables, and supports the complex data types often stored in today’s relational databases. In short, DataPortal lets you share your data across database vendors without any additional steps.

If you’re a government agency (or any organization) charged with making data available to the public, we invite you to see how easy it is to use DataPortal to share databases of any size in their original format. And if you’d like to get started with DataPortal today, just contact us for more information.

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