An underlying premise behind open data is that you, the creator of a dataset, may not know the best use of your data and therefore need to leave the data open and let the future decide. It is a hard decision for a data analyst who believes that data needs to be properly handled by the ‘professional.’  Even worse, the creator of the dataset rarely sees how the data is being used by others, so they never validate this ‘best use’ principle. Last weekend, it was exciting for me to see the principle of open data in practice, especially on a dataset that I helped to create.

Three years ago, a researcher at the Urban Strategies Council collected information about all of the reentry service providers in Alameda County. We plugged the data into a cumbersome relational database and built a web-based resource directory using the data. About the same time, two groups: Ramsell and Open211, approached us and asked us for the data in order to build their own versions of a resource directory. We had no objection and passed them comma-separated values spreadsheets. Open211 took the data; converted it to a web-friendly json format; built a cool app; and opened the [couch] database with the improved data.

second impressions

Fast forward 3 years to this last week’s start up hackathon at the Impact Hub. I received a call asking me to provide the service directory data to a team building an app for formerly incarcerated people to find employment.  Instead of giving flat files that would have taken considerable work to adapt to ‘good’ web formats, I pointed them to the improved data created by Open211. The end result was that the team did not waste precious time formatting the data and instead focused on building the best app to address the critical issue of employment for formerly incarcerated people.  Additionally, this team shared this data with two other teams who also incorporated the data into their apps!

Why Open Data Worked for this situation:

+  Three teams used relevant snippets of the service directory for their projects

+ Service provider info has been vetted by three teams

+  Three new channels have been created to access the information by our community

We’ve been working to democratize data for two decades at Urban Strategies Council, and now we’re really starting to see this effort come into it’s own and realize the benefits of public data being accessible to the public!