Concluding U.S. Open Data

16 June 2016

Three years ago, when planning U.S. Open Data at the Aspen Institute’s Forum on Communications and Society, we established an unusual requirement: that the organization be shut down within four years, at the most. Ideally sooner.

On July 31, we’re going to do just that.

* * *

U.S. Open Data was created to serve as a partner to both government and the private sector, to improve the state of open data and to help ensure that government wouldn’t let open data become a passing fad. Our mission has been to build up the open data ecosystem, both inside and outside of government, to the point that an organization like U.S. Open Data is no longer necessary. We’ve done that by providing no-cost consulting services, building software to close gaps in the ecosystem, propagating best practices, and promoting the people doing important work in this space.

Our four-year term limit has been a gift, every day. Knowing that our organization is going away, there’s been no need to chase grants, no sense in building ourselves up, nothing to be gained by building a network that places us at the center. Even ignoring the daily benefits, the value of a term limit is this: there is some point of time by which we either have accomplished our mission (in which case we should stop, because we’re done), or we have not accomplished our mission (in which case we should stop, because we’re not up to the task). It limits the potential damage that a well-intentioned organization can do, and prevents it from becoming a zombie organization that exists because it exists.

A lot has changed since 2013. 18F and the U.S. Digital Service exist now, giving the federal government technical capacity that it simply didn’t have three years ago, and they’re baking open data into their systems and processes. Bloomberg Philanthropies launched What Works Cities last year, bringing standardized open data practices to 100 cities across the U.S. The DATA Act is now law. Cities and states throughout the U.S. have open data laws and policies.

Better practices are in place, leaders have emerged, gaps have been bridged, laws have been passed, regulations have been written, businesses have been started. Open data has enmeshed itself into government, business, and society, in ways that would make it awfully difficult to eliminate.

Open data can’t go away anymore. (If, indeed, it ever could have.) Our mission has been accomplished, although whether we deserve any credit for that is impossible to know.

* * *

We’re going to spend the next month and a half wrapping up projects (even starting one new project), finding new homes for other projects, and generally ensuring that nobody will notice when U.S. Open Data ceases to exist. As it should be.

Our major project, Dat, long ago became substantially larger than the rest of U.S. Open Data, by any metric. Designed to outlast U.S. Open Data, Dat will continue to grow and thrive, unaffected.

We are enormously grateful to our founding funder, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, without whom U.S. Open Data would never have existed. And we are likewise grateful to our general support funder since 2015, the Shuttleworth Foundation, who made it possible for us to complete our work.

Here’s hoping we did some good.