Needed: an understanding of the data environment in which your open data program's users operate

By Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D., Balefire Global,

It makes sense that, if you devote time and energy to designing, ramping up, and managing an open data program, you're doing so for a reason. In What does the term “program alignment” mean when applied to open data programs? I made the assumption that you will want to align your open data program with the sponsoring organization’s goals and objectives and then measure the open data program’s performance by whether or not these goals and objectives are supported.

I did mention a caveat: you can't always predict how the data provided through your open data program are used, what all the uses of your data and up being, who the users are, and what the benefits of these uses might be, given your lack of control over how your data might be re-used and re-shared.

If this is so, how concerned should you be about the secondary and tertiary uses made of your program’s open data?

Perhaps the data you’re distributing describe the participants and transactions associated with programs you are responsible for managing and you make the data available on a regular basis via your own web portal as well as third-party services. They in turn support access to and reuse of your program’s data via search, file downloads, and API’s that can link your data with data from other sources.

I maintain that, if you are running a government program that is serving a particular need of a particular constituency, it's your business to know not only how well your program is serving that constituency directly but also how the services of others are impacting them as well. That means you may need to track not only the direct impact of your services (for example, income supplements, health services, training, public safety, environmental cleanup, sanitation, housing, education, etc.) but also the impacts of usage of related data and services obtained from sources external to your own.

This is not as far-fetched as it may sound at first. If your program is providing services to a particular constituency you need to understand the context in which those services are delivered. This includes knowing how other service operate and how your own users compare your services with services provided by others.

In the commercial world this means understanding your “competition.” There are some similarities with how government programs operate since people can take advantage of a variety of related or overlapping services from different sources. The potential for data re-sharing and re-use by others adds an additional complication since establishing a reasonable chain of events linking data access to positive (or negative) outcomes becomes even more challenging.

An important first step is to gain an understanding of the “data environment" in which your program’s target users already operate. Who else is providing similar or related services and data? What is the relative popularity (or unpopularity) of these different data sources?

If, for example, you are a municipal government and want to begin publishing geographically tagged and visualized crime data on your agency’s own data portal, what other data sources on crime are available to your target constituents? Is there overlap? How will you be adding value to the mix?

How will you be measuring the impact of your publishing such crime statistics, and who benefits? Will such data be viewed as a help or hindrance by your own law-enforcement professionals? Will certain neighborhoods be flag is more or less "desirable" in terms of crime, and what would the impact of such characterizations be? If you do begin providing crime data by neighborhood and a third party combines these data with other real estate data via a system that allows for custom neighborhood “redlining,” will you be held responsible?

In summary, you need to think about going beyond basic usage and consumption data to understand the potential impacts of your open data program. You also need an understanding of the communities and the environments in which your users are operating. Then you can begin to really understand the good your open data program is capable of.

Related reading:

· A Framework for Transparency Program Planning and Assessment
Developing Digital Strategies for Web-based Public Access to Government Performance Data
How Our Increasing Digital Connectedness Improves Government Program Evaluation
On Defining the "Maturity" of Open Data Programs
On Measuring Open Data Benefits in International Development Projects
Open Data and Performance Measurement: Two Sides of the Same Coin
Social Networking, Performance Improvement, and Service Differentiation: A Rising Tide
What does the term “program alignment” mean when applied to open data programs?


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