OPEN DATA: A Lot of Sparks, So Why No Wildfire Yet?

The concept of “Open Data” has  excited and frustrated a lot of people over the years, because it’s one of those things that makes total sense on paper, and therefore “feels” like an idea that will quickly go viral and generate tremendous value. Yet it hasn’t yet, so its supporters are puzzled and reflexively think the solution must be to educate people and to turn up the volume since, both intuitively and intellectually, it already should have caught on like wildfire.

Here’s my two cents on why that hasn’t happened yet; actually it’s more like twenty cents worth of thoughts, so I’ll be writing a series of three blogs (starting with this one) on the reasons I believe we haven’t made more progress to date and how we might do so going forward.

To frame the picture, first let’s treat Open Data like any other startup that has a great idea, and in this case considerable evidence to back it up and many enthusiastic supporters as well. Statistically, the overwhelming majority of such endeavors never take off, not because they offer bad products but because there are numerous alternatives, or their true value hasn’t been explicitly communicated.

I’m quite certain that Open Data will not fail for many reasons, but that does not make it immune from the typical types of growing pains that new ideas need to surmount every day. It is promoting a product that is being marketed to citizens, entrepreneurs, businesses and importantly government consumers. And so it is subject to the same lessons that the business world learns about other products.

I suggest we must recognize and be truthful about several basic concepts in order to effectively develop and successfully realize the value of Open Data.

First, we should recognize the nature of consumers – and the fact that they sometimes behave in mysterious and seemingly illogical ways; the nature of and need for The Product; the critical role of the developer; and the relevance and importance of the marketing effort. In addition, there needs to be an understanding of how people within these four groups can be motivated and how they can work together synergistically in order for this enterprise to take off. And finally – and perhaps most importantly can we point to demonstrable improvements or changes that are expanding knowledge, improving outcomes, and enhancing operations. We are beginning to see some early evidence from across the country but more case studies are needed. We need to be able to point to the tangible benefits of the enormous effort underway to liberate data at the federal, state and local levels.
Okay. That’s the framework, the small start of my thinking on this very big subject. Stewards of Change Institute invites you to weigh in with your own reflections and insights in the comments section below. I’ll add more of my own in the second part of this series, which will be published next week.
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