This post originally appeared on Living Cities.
There’s been growing momentum around opening government data. Stimulated by “civic hackers,” the President’s Open Government Executive Order, and nonprofits like Code for America, an explosion of open government data is fueling new tools and enterprises improving our lives in ways we don’t even realize. For example, the weather app on your phone probably uses data collected all over the globe by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The scale and utility of government’s “Big Data” platforms are very much akin to roadways, railways and runways: a public infrastructure from which everyone benefits, but that no single company can afford to build.
Open Data reminds me of what the media landscape looked like for most of the 20th Century. You could only get reliable information from a few, capital-intensive outlets like TV networks, radio stations, or newspapers. Today, that has changed greatly. Platforms like YouTube and WordPress empower anyone to be the equivalent of a newspaper, TV or radio station. Traditional media, for their part, have adapted with sites like Hulu and with aggressive social media usage. This mashup of mainstream and peer-to-peer media has unleashed immeasurable creativity and influenced culture all over the world.
Open Data is poised for its own YouTube moment. Just as Web 2.0 has both disrupted and enriched traditional media, so too can the Internet of Things function with respect to open government data.
In my city, Louisville, Kentucky, we have seven air quality monitoring sites, funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with sensitive monitoring equipment that lies outside the price range of the typical advocacy group or start-up. EPA funds networks of these stations all over the country to help monitor the environment for public health. All of the data created by those stations are available for public use. Additionally, my mayor, Greg Fischer, signed an “Open by Default” Executive Order compelling all local agencies to publish what they gather in machine readable format which means other data sets generated by Louisville Metro Government are appearing each week to supplement what we see from other levels of government.
However, until recently, there was no place to combine that data with private data. We were recently contacted by someone who was redeveloping a building in the heart of our city and had set up a low-cost Egg air quality sensor to gather air pollution readings just above street level downtown. “Egg 1347815471” was chugging out readings in real time, and its owner wanted to know if we could use the data.
The short answer is “no,” and that is the answer any government will give you when faced with a similar request. This answer often frustrates open data advocates and civic-minded data collectors, and understandably so. I would argue, however, that the question is not: “Why shouldn’t government host both public and private data?” but rather: “How can we create places where both kinds of data can live?”
That is exactly the approach we are taking in Louisville. Under the leadership of Mayor Fischer, described by some as “The Data-Driven Mayor,” my team is working in partnership with philanthropy to stand up several public-private Community Open Data sites. These sites will house static and dynamic data from public and private sources (like Egg 1347815471) to create “higher-resolution” data at marginal cost. The sites will make it easier for us, and for citizens, advocates and others, to generate new insights, tools and innovations to attack thorny local problems. Imagine the possibilities if every city in the country created a similar data repository – or if someone created one for every city across the country or the world.
Louisville, like many cities, is embracing Tim O’Reilly’s idea of “government as platform.” We are eager to continue to push the envelope – both ourselves and as part of a broader open data community – to deliver better results for Louisville and for America.