Dennis D. McDonald (ddmcd@outlook.com) is an independent consultant located in Alexandria Virginia. His services and capabilities are described here. Application areas include project, program, and data management; market assessment, digital strategy, and program planning; change and content management; social media; and, technology adoption. Follow him on Google+. He also publishes on CTOvision.com and aNewDomain.

Who Gets Credit for Open Data?

Who Gets Credit for Open Data?

By Dennis D. McDonald

One of the findings of the recent Pew report on open data was that most people aren’t aware of their having used “open data.” (This is usually defined as data made available in a standardized machine readable form by government sources without any usage restrictions.)

While some folks will point to this finding as showing that government-sponsored open data programs are having little effect, this lack of awareness should come as no surprise. After all, who keeps track of the source of each and every piece of data and its provenance when going about his or her daily work? For example:

  • When checking a local city government’s website for some fact, how clear will it be where the displayed data came from — the city, county, state, national government, or a commercial source?
  • When checking a weather app on a smartphone, who will know where the predictions came from originally?
  • When looking at a map in the city newspaper, who knows where the physical boundary data originated?
  • If an entrepreneur combines data from a variety of public and private sector sources to create a new subscription product, how important is it for customers to know all the “gory details” about where the data came from?

Those of us who consider ourselves to be “data professionals” might consider such ignorance to be disappointing, perhaps even shocking.

But we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, does a commuter care if immediate traffic information is coming from other drivers, from police reports, from inroad sensors, or from drone observations? Or does the commuter just care that the traffic data are accurate and updated?

I suspect it’s the latter which is probably true for many members of the public. They really don’t care where data come from as long as they are accurate, up-to-date, and priced right.

Such “contextual ignorance” might pose a quandary for the manager of a government-sponsored open data program whose goal it is to make data accessible and usable in a standardized machine-readable form. Metadata describing sources don’t always get carried through to end-users apps and may be stripped out before data are processed for distribution or visualization. If this happens regularly how can the government program manager be assured that the source program “gets the credit” for data the public user finds most useful? It’s not like there’s a roadside sign stating that, “This bridge was constructed with X million dollars in federal tax funds and Y million dollars of state taxes.”

The lack of easily accessible source and context information might eventually become a problem. Public programs ultimately have to depend on public funding. If the public doesn’t know the data they rely on are coming from public sources – which they pay for with their taxes — how can they be expected to make intelligent decisions about which programs to fund?

Sometimes when we talk about “citizen engagement” we are referring to the manner in which government officials communicate with the public and vice versa about government services. As data of all kinds become an increasingly visible components of government services, how do we educate the public about the data they’re using so they can intelligently evaluate whether or not they’re getting a good return on their investment?

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Copyright © 2015 by Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D. Dennis is an independent management consultant based in Alexandria, Virginia. His experience includes consulting company ownership and management, database publishing and data transformation projects, managing the consolidation of large systems, open data, statistical research, corporate IT strategy, and IT cost analysis. Clients have included the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Academy of Engineering, the World Bank, and the National Library of Medicine. He has worked as a project manager, analyst, and researcher in the U.S. and in Europe, Egypt, and China. His web site is located at www.ddmcd.com and his email address is ddmcd@yahoo.com. On Twitter he is @ddmcd.

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