Just Share Your Data

23 May 2014

In the world of open data advocacy, we talk a lot about standards, platforms, and best practices. These are all important goals, but not one of them should be an obstacle to government publication of open data.

We Have High Standards

It’s true that in the long run, adherence to standards is crucial. That means providing data as CSV, not Excel; JSON, not binary; Markdown, not Word; and so on. That means explicitly releasing data under an open license or, for governments, into the public domain. That means committing to keeping data up-to-date, instead of letting it languish. That means using open data catalog software (like CKAN, Socrata, DKAN, or Junar) to house published datasets. And that means enacting an open data policy, so that everybody in your organization (governmental or otherwise) knows when and how to publish open data, and third parties know what to expect.

These are all important things, but they shouldn’t be obstacles to starting to publish data. That is especially true for small units of government: municipalities, state agencies, and special-purpose governments (e.g., school districts, transit authorities, planning organizations, etc.) Small governments generally lack the IT staff and budget that are necessary to make a wholesale committment to open data. As a result, movement towards open data is often the product of just a few people’s interest, with no agency-wide committment. An insistence on adherance to best practices makes it impossible for such efforts to succeed.

Just Do It

Publishing open data can be really very easy, provided that one isn’t a purist about it. Follow these simple steps:

  1. Inventory the data that you already publish. Look through your website and make a list of all of the data, in any format: PDFs of budgets, Word files of agendas, Excel files of expenses, Shapefiles of zoning maps, and so on. One way to do this is to use Google’s advanced search to search just your site (the “site or domain” field), and use the “file type” field to try searching for PDFs, Excel files, etc.

  2. Create a new page on your website (suggestion: http://example.gov/data/). List each of these files, providing the title, a description, and a link to the file. When possible, provide a date for when the file was last updated and how often it changes.

  3. Tell people what you made.

This is not the best approach to publishing open data. It fails all kinds of tests about accuracy and licensing and standards. But that doesn’t really matter right now, because it’s data that people have access to that they didn’t have access to before, and that’s the important part. And if the experiment goes well, then the government might be willing to commit some actual resources to open data efforts: dedicated staff time, funding, or a change in policy.

For small governments to publish open data, they just need to go ahead and publish open data. The rest will follow.