‘Open data’ is the concept of government agencies sharing their legally-public datasets with the people who pay for those datasets to exist: the taxpayers. Whenever I explain the concept of ‘open data’, I like to give examples of things in our everyday lives that wouldn’t be possible without open data.
“We must use all available technologies and methods to open up the federal government, creating a new level of transparency to change the way business is conducted in Washington, and giving Americans the chance to participate in government deliberations and decision making in ways that were not possible only a few years ago.”
1. Meteorological data. If data collected from government-run weather satellites and ground stations weren’t universally accessible by all, each and every news station and mobile phone weather app would need to launch an independent network of satellites. It would seriously hinder research, food supplies, the advancement of technology, and public safety.
2. Online maps. Geographic Information System (GIS) data from all levels of government define the location and shapes of roads, parks, and buildings all over the world. If those government agencies didn’t make this data available to the public, Google Maps and MapQuest would be full of errors.
3. Aviation. Without the government sharing numerous datasets and systems, aviation simply wouldn’t exist. If runway maps and published approach vectors weren’t universally accessible, pilots would be confused and the skies would be full of danger. Now, dozens of apps for general aviation pilots have lessened the learning curve and heightened safety and awareness.
4. Global Positioning System (GPS). GPS is used in agriculture, aviation, shipping, time synchronization, civilian road transportation, and more. None of this would be possible if government satellites weren’t open and available for anyone to receive signals from. This government investment has empowered industry, safety, and convenience.
5. Traffic information. Sensors below the surfaces of major roads and highways collect the number of cars passing the given point over a given amount of time. This information powers traffic segments on the local news, travel time estimates, and online maps with live traffic data. It’s also a valuable source of data for researchers, traffic planners, and urban planners designing for the future.
6. Mass transit and bus tracking apps. If you live in an urban area or travel frequently, chances are that you have a few apps on your phone to help you figure out what bus or train to take. These apps are powered by openly shared public transit route data. There’s even apps that tell you when you should leave home to catch your bus, which are powered by live location data constantly being updated by transit agencies.
7. Healthcare provider identification. The Department of Health and Human Services issues a National Provider Identifier (NPI) to every healthcare provider in the country, which serves as a universal method for providers to identify themselves in exchanging healthcare data, coordinating benefits for insurance purposes, prescriber verification, and electronic health record systems. Without this database being downloadable and integrated within various services, there’d be confusion and delays throughout the entire healthcare system.
8. Pollution research. If the government didn’t share data collected from air samples, water samples, and licensed industrial sources of pollution, critical research into climate change and pollution wouldn’t happen, and wouldn’t be nearly as distributed and accessible as it is now. No research university could ever afford to install sensors all over the world.
9. Charity trustworthiness. Tax returns for non-profits are public information, and if the government didn’t make these tax returns public, there would be no mechanism for charity rating organizations and the general public verifying that a charity actually uses its funds for its stated mission.
10. Postal mail. If the government didn’t share its databases of house numbers, street addresses, unit numbers, and ZIP codes, there would be no mechanism to verify a package is going to the right place, or to ensure proper routing of a package.
11. Product recalls. As manufacturers report product recalls to the federal government, they’re also shared as part of a dataset and feed of recalls to consumer protection organizations and large retailers so they can share the news, post information in stores, and notify customers. If the government didn’t share this data, product recalls would be much less effective.
12. Reliable natural gas and power. Census data is critical for major utilities to determine where it will need to grow its delivery networks in time for increased consumption.
13. Search and rescue. Emergency beacons for boats, planes, and land communicate with two separate networks of satellites. If you have an emergency locator beacon, there’s no cost to use the government satellites. If that communication was restricted, it would damper search and rescue efforts both for the individual being rescued and non-government rescue groups. Additionally, government-provided land topography, weather, and satellite imagery assist search and rescue operators on every mission.
14. Real estate and housing. The entire real estate industry is powered by government data, from broker and mortgage originator verification to neighborhood housing trends to foreclosure prevention. Websites like Zillow also wouldn’t exist without government data. Sadly, this data isn’t always open, which is a major limiting factor in innovation.
15. Servicemember and veteran assistance. Data from the DoD and VA reveal how many servicemembers and veterans there are and where they’re located, expenditures by state and program, and more. This data is critical for non-profits and veteran service organizations to determine where to focus assistance efforts for veterans returning home.
16. Medicine. This isn’t just government data, but it’s also data from private industry and universities. If data about pharmaceuticals, immunizations, and specific medical procedures wasn’t universally shared for greater worldwide advancement in medicine, common medications and procedures wouldn’t be known, tested, collaborated on, and improved.
17. The stock market. If the SEC didn’t make filing data available to the general public, investment firms wouldn’t have a unified and central place to access important, standardized information about the structure and performance of listed companies, creating chaos and a susceptibility to fraud in the market.
18. Safer cars. If the government and safety testing organizations didn’t openly share independently-collected vehicle safety rating data, the market would be flooded with false claims about car safety. By sharing this data, it creates transparency for consumers to make the best decision, and prompts manufacturers to learn from the engineering faults of others to build safer vehicles.
19. The Internet. The Internet wouldn’t exist today without government involvement and assistance. The development of ARPAnet, which started the creation of protocols for networking, was largely supported by the Department of Defense. To get researchers across the country to work together, information had to be openly shared and collaborated on. And despite government’s investment into networking of the future, it was opened for everyone to use.
20. Insurance. Without government data on fires, crime, climate, and more, it would be very difficult for actuaries to make the insurance industry work, and remain affordable.
21. Realtime and trustworthy election results. The government administers elections for its own elected offices, and the only reason that system is perceived as being trustworthy is because all of the results come in simultaneously and in realtime when the polls close. Government agencies release their election results in a machine-readable format not only so that voting jurisdictions can communicate, but also so that news organizations can process and analyze the results in realtime.
22. Fuel economy information. When researching a vehicle purchase, the only reason you’re able to compare fuel economy ratings so easily is because the government makes every vehicle’s fuel economy data freely available to be integrated with car search websites. That ultimately serves to induce consumers to buy more fuel-efficient cars.
23. ACH and direct deposit transactions. The Federal Reserve facilitates ACH transactions between banks, and publishes an authoritative list of routing numbers for those banks. Without that information, many errors would be introduced into the system. By opening up this information, it ensures reliability in the system.
24. Farming. Advancements in agriculture and the economy surrounding agriculture are shared and analyzed thanks to USDA data, including agricultural trade statistics, supply and demand data, fertilizer pricing, food consumption rates, and county-level production and consumption data. If this data wasn’t shared, there would be food shortages, major fluctuations in pricing, and lower quality in produce.
25. Education. Data relating to student K-12 enrollment, education standards, student aid, and demographic data, ensure stability, achievement, and cost transparency in K-12 and postsecondary education nationwide. Without this data, it would be impossible to pressure underperforming schools to improve and it would be impossible for potential college students to choose the right college to go to.
There’s plenty of other things — food assistance programs, international travel, business extensions of credit, earthquake research, and more — that also wouldn’t be possible without government agencies openly sharing information.
We need to recognize that government data is one of our most valuable assets, an asset that has been produced at taxpayer expense. Opening and sharing that information powers innovation and promotes advancements to improve lives, and it allows new industries to sprout. This stimulates the economy and creates jobs.
In the vast majority of situations, government agencies opening and sharing information furthers the goals and stated missions of those agencies, and can even be a force multiplier for city departments or state agencies stretched thin.
It’s hard to recognize the value of something intangible, but just like the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, data is something created by the government that brings efficiency to government services, industry, and everyday life.