Why open data matters

Why open data matters today

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The main factor in any change first begins with observation. The data we collect allows us to analyze complex human patterns and behavior. Without data, there's nothing to be observed.

For some time, the government has been gathering large amounts of data. But now, they're officially making that data accessible to the citizen. When President Obama recently announced the launch of The Opportunity Project, it set off a new initiative that seeks to improve economic mobility for all citizens with the use of digital tools and data sets.

This project aims to capitalize on the trend of open data and making public information available to the public. Its goal is to leverage the latest technology and trends to provide data points across various fields of study, such as employment, housing, schools, and transportation.

In a real sense, the citizen is enabled to participate in policymaking and effect the changes they want to see within the civic structure. In a symbolic sense, it is tacit acknowledgement of the public's vital role in shaping our nation, and spreads a sense of empowerment and privilege to the masses.

Measuring the benefits of open data

The potential benefits of open data are vast. Open data has the promise to give us a better understanding into how policies have worked (or not worked), increase government efficiency, offer more thorough analytical insights, and provide a new way for us citizens to be involved in public sector happenings. Businesses also figure to meaningfully benefit from products and services utilizing government data. In terms of numbers, there's a report of the U.K. public sector data being valued at £6.8 billion, with McKinsey predicting an open-data centric global market to drive anywhere from $3-5 trillion annually. 

In principle, open data should enable both the citizen and government to more easily collaborate. It allows citizens to play a more active role in getting involved and making changes. (Of course, this presumes a certain level of willingness and commitment from the citizen.) With data readily available, citizens are better equipped to identify issues and tackle them without solely relying on government authority. 

For developers, armed with a combination of open data and proper digital tools, they're enabled to build apps that can address inefficiencies and improve the community. Already, we're seeing a torrent of apps and projects being developed in both public and private sectors.

The Sunlight Foundation

One group leading the charge is The Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization whose mission is to make government more open and accountable to the public. Its ultimate goal is to create real change in the legal system by requiring transparency for all government data, in particular with political money trails and external influencing factors.

The Sunlight Foundation's work involves all sorts of industry types, from activists and developers to bloggers and journalists. Their reporters are tasked with covering political stories and other news, while their Sunlight Labs team of developers and engineers create apps to transfer that information to the public.

Citizens are invited to help in their efforts to open up the government at the local, state, federal, and international levels. Here's a sample list of the various tools and projects they've made available to the public:

Open data is crucial because it's a step towards transparency within our local and federal institutions that has traditionally been lacking. The Sunlight Foundation seeks to publish information in a manner that the public can easily find and use, which can translate into greater accountability from the government.

Final thoughts

The power to solve problems begins with the people. Open data will equip those who are under-resourced, but if people aren't willing to participate, the data won't be useful. Hopefully citizens will see this as a call to arms to engage our systems and make change for a better world. 

About the author

Martin Yan - Martin Yan is a business and digital strategist at Liferay, Inc., an enterprise open source portal and digital platform company based in Los Angeles. He enjoys discovering the latest tech trends and dissecting its influence on modern society and culture. He is also passionate about crafting good stories in his free time, including short fiction and children's books.