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Open Data on a Dime

Starting an open data initiative from scratch can seem like a daunting effort. GovEx has built some excellent resources, but I wanted to share my experience working on establishing a portal in the State of Maryland. Giving a first-hand account of some of the challenges we faced can help others in the same situation succeed. In particular, we got started without much technical expertise – a daunting idea for a project built around using the internet to make raw data available.

Unveiling its open data portal in 2012, Maryland was one of the first state-level efforts in the country. It was a big accomplishment, but I would definitely characterize it as a bootstrapping effort – we did not have unlimited resources or staff time to get the portal up and running. We had three staff, myself included, working on the effort. And the three staff had full time jobs on the side. Agencies were still coming in on a regular basis for their monthly stat meetings, which required data analysis, research, and lots of memo-writing for the Governor’s executive team.  I would have given up half my salary if we could have had a full-time programmer, web designer, and database expert working on the open data effort with us.

There was a good deal of fear, from myself and from some of the data owners embedded within state agencies, when it came to producing this portal. I constantly wondered how we would be able to pull data from the wide variety of data collection systems (including some that originated years before I was born) throughout the state and keep it up-to-date, particularly if we had no one available who could automate those processes. Was it even worth starting if we didn’t have someone working on the effort who could tackle technical problems like that? I even thought about learning how to code – certainly there are plenty of free resources available to learn programming skills, and they are so highly valued in today’s world that it could be a good investment of time. But despite this anxiety and lack of technical expertise, we pushed forward on our efforts in response to a clear signal from the Governor that this was important to him.

Though I would have given up quite a bit to have some stronger information technology resources available, I think we did a great job getting a portal up and running. It wasn’t the flashiest portal, and we received suggestions for improvement, but it was an important first step.  We were able to provide raw data that could allow the public to better understand how we were measuring progress towards strategic priorities in the State of Maryland. We had some technical assistance from outside groups and from the vendor that we used to host the portal. We also were able to draw a bit from expertise within state agencies. But for the most part, the portal was built and populated by analysts who knew the data and understood what it could reveal, rather than programmers or other highly technically skilled individuals.

One of the first internal groups to really become engaged in the open data efforts was the state’s geographic information systems (GIS) community. Maryland has long had a strong network of GIS professionals working across its state agencies. This group communicates well with each other and works closely with the private sector, sometimes in the form of providing data. There was a great deal of geographic information available, but not in the most open format – it could not be downloaded and processed, only viewed. Once certain members of this community understood the value of the portal in making their data available in a more open format, they started really making use of the platform. Their buy-in allowed us to identify individuals with some programming skills – many of the GIS analysts were familiar enough with programming to write some simple (or even complex) scripts to upload and maintain data. Identifying these internal resources and advocates for the effort helped spur momentum across other types of users.

I’m not necessarily advocating for Maryland’s bootstrapping approach, but my experience really drove home that you don’t have to be highly technical or have the perfect team in place to make progress creating a culture that values open data. If you are committed to making more data available, you can start with what you have. Building champions internal to the organization and cultivating customers who use the data will help to ensure that your efforts gain momentum. You can work from there to secure more resources, but a lack of resources shouldn’t keep you from getting started. The same principle applies to performance analytics. You don’t have to be a data scientist or have a doctorate degree in statistics to improve the information available to governments and citizens. As long as you understand your goals as a city and can identify data assets that you have, you can start to turn those assets into publicly shared intelligence and improve services for residents.

Check out our GovEx Open Data – Getting Started Guide for some expert insights on how to get an open data program up and running. But don’t be intimidated by all of the great recommendations in there – you don’t have to have an expert team in place, or a detailed, hundred-page strategic open data plan in order to get started. You just need to get started.

Do you have a story about starting small and building momentum for your open data or performance analytics efforts? We’d love to hear it! E-mail me at kristen.ahearn@jhu.edu with your story.

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