4 take-aways from an expert panel on open data

As data advocates push the government to make federal data available to citizens, there’s much discussion about the potential money-making opportunities.

A recent McKinsey study suggested that simply sharing information more freely could unlock trillions of dollars in economic potential each year. It could free up about $100 billion in the transportation industry alone; if citizens and municipal transit systems were better informed about actual door-to-door travel time, commuters could cut down the wait, and transit systems could better schedule train times, for instance.

And some businesses — like Washington-based start-up GovTribe, whose software lets users track federal contracting in particular sectors — aim to profit by processing publicly available data, organizing it and then presenting it to the public. (GovTribe is currently free to use but its founders hope to charge a monthly usage fee in the future).

A White House plan last week outline President Obama’s plans to make datamore available, such as maintaining data.gov, a publicly accessible repository of federal data sources.

At a panel discussion in Mountain View, Calif. on Monday, organized by The Atlantic, a few open data experts discussed some of the challenges in open data. Michael Chui, a principal at McKinsey Global Institute, joined United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer Jennifer Pahlka and Mike Alfred, chief executive officer of San Diego-based financial information company BrightScope on the panel.

Here are a few take-aways from that discussion:

1. Publishing data is often the easiest part

Making data publicly available isn’t difficult, Pahlka said — what’s more challenging is making sure citizens and the government communicate about the quality of the data.

Some businesses, like Captricity, a Berkeley-based software start-up that can automatically digitize hard-copy files, can help agencies make their data public, she noted.

But “it’s not like a push ‘publish’ and you’re done, there’s a constant dialogue between people creating the apps and the people publishing the [data],” Pahulka said. “It’s really more about creating that ecosystem and the ongoing dialogue.”

For the open-data movement to take hold, it’s essential that there are government representatives who can respond to citizens when they request particular data sets, or point out errors in existing data sets.

2. Federal, state and local governments have different levels of engagement

“Anecdotally, it’s almost bi-modal,” Chui said, explaining that he notices the most open data activity at the national and local levels, and less at the state level.

3. The more citizens use apps or Web sites based on open data, the more useful those sites become

For instance Recovers.org, a site letting people organize disaster response and manage volunteers, saw much activity during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Each time citizens used the site, they input important information about disaster response: which communities needed help most, and what they needed, and where volunteers were.

“Once communities start using platforms like that , when they’re responding to disasters, there’ll just be more data,” she said.

4. But it’s important not to over-hype open data

Alfred, whose start-up BrightScope helps investors research retirement plans, mutual funds and make financial decisions based said he “caution[s] people about being too excited about” open data. Citizens and governments must be careful not to infer too much from incomplete data sets, he said, noting that models based on historical data are often better at predicting the past than the future.

“Data’s just part of what makes for greater things. We should get better at it, but I don’t think we should bet it all on it.”

Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. She joined the Washington Post after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania and has interned for Business Insider and the Philadelphia Inquirer. She is a native of Pittsburgh.
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