Writing about open data, Addison notes the need for more data standards: “We need data standards for budgets, finance reports, public safety data and other key operational data. We need the ability of minimizing the technical knowledge required to create comparisons.” In this timely call for standards, Addison echoes the demand that has rung down our enterprises for years and provided the motive force for the continuing data revolution. The crossover from the organizational context to the civic realm is well under way, with the critical value of data now front of mind in every walk of life.
I'm drawn to Addison's point about how the impulse – or the obligation – to publish data has a virtuous effect on organizations. He quotes Amen Ra Mashariki, Chief Analytics Officer at New York City: “You can only grow the quality of data by using it.” By reviewing data sets for publication, organizations learn about the limitations of their existing data and are motivated to improve them.
This is interesting on many levels. For one thing, it implies that, prior to the pressure to make data available to external users, organizations live with sub-standard data sets – perhaps unaware of their poor quality or incomplete coverage. This in turn implies organizations have not historically exploited their own data resources. If they were using this stuff, they'd have noticed the problems already.
Maybe the dawning era of open data is actually more about self-consciousness in administration than citizen participation. I don't mean advocates of open data are deluded in their aims – far from it. Open data is a good thing. But the immediate, sustained benefits may turn out not to lie in citizen scrutiny of government operations, but in the preemption of criticism of government staff.
It's like audit. Audit is there to stop you doing wrong stuff, not catch you when you've done wrong stuff. Open data – and, by extension, open government – is not really about us all offering our analytical skills to the government for free. It's about removing the walls to the bureaucracy so we can see it's being run right.
Addison's piece is a guest blog for the Sunlight Foundation. It's apt, because just letting the light in on government is ninety percent of ensuring accountability. And there's an old saying that sunlight is the best disinfectant. Sunlight