Report: Open data's positives are still in their infancy

The promise of open data holds a lot of positives for agency leaders, but a new report finds that the road to that promise is still a long one. 

In “The State of the Union of Open Data, 2016,” a paper co-authored by Grant Thornton and The Data Foundation — an open data research organization that supports standardization efforts throughout the federal government — multiple agency leaders acknowledge the value of open data, but note that the federal government is still in the early stages of capitalizing on it. 

Related:  Read the report 

The report’s authors interviewed more than 40 government and private sector stakeholders who appeared at the Data Foundation’s annual policy conference, Data Transparency 2016, on Sept. 28 to ask what the outcome of opening and standardizing agency data would be. 

When asked whether the standardization and publication of agency data had improved in the last five years, 53 percent said yes, while another 37 percent said yes, but with limitations.  

The report shows the challenge of open data is twofold: making more agency data public, but also standardizing it across the federal government to make it easier to utilize it toward a productive solution. 

The poster child of the open data effort is the DATA Act, a 2014 law that requires federal agencies to publicly report their spending data in a standardized format by 2017. 

Though efforts to get federal agencies up to speed by next year are ongoing, the promise of the DATA Act has some federal leaders looking to other possibilities in analytical data solutions. 

“Standardization is extremely important, but we are still at an intermediary step — namely, ensuring the broad availability and machine-readability of our data on a routine basis,” said Brandon Pustejovsky, chief data officer at USAID, in the report. 

“Standardization will become more of a priority as we get these initial steps in place. But when moving forward, we can't allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.” 

Thirty percent of interviewees said they thought cross-comparing data would be the most important outcome of open data, but a combined 50 percent also saw the possibility of better predictive analysis and improved access for constituencies as integral possibilities. 

“Investing in civic technology and committing to government transparency are key to a modern democracy,” said Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., in the report. 

“In 2016, citizens expect and deserve access to information about the laws that impact them on a daily basis.” 

The report ultimately advocates for more efforts at data standardization and collaboration between agencies — noting that the DATA Act and Securities and Exchange Commission reporting requirements have laid the groundwork for spending transparency, but further open data efforts could generate more possibilities for better government. 

“Open data can and should be used to improve the lives of the citizens [that] government programs were designed to assist,” said Robert Shea, principal with Grant Thornton Public Sector. “Currently, when we evaluate programs, we often collect data anew. Open data offers the promise that we could more easily assess how effective programs are and at what cost.”