January 1, 2021

Open Data: Using Government Data for Business and the Public Good

Rel8ed.to Founder Bob Lytle explains the growing movement of Open Government, the benefits of open data, the types of data you can access, and how his company leverages this information in their Advanced Data solutions

The Benefits of Open Data

In Washington DC this morning, watching the sun rise over the Abraham Lincoln Memorial.  A brief bout of melancholy at seeing my old home’s national capitol, and my thoughts turn to openness and one of the greatest presidents in history — from my home state of Illinois, to boot. What would the Great Emancipator have said about the Open Government movements taking hold around the world?

Would he have supported the freeing of government information and making it public?

Canada’s new Prime Minister promoted openness in a big way during his recent campaign. His statement that government should be “Open by Default” has warmed the hearts of many in the Open Data community. Time will tell if he’s true to his word to release all emails sent to his Cabinet ministers, and what impact that will have on day-to-day communication within his Government.

But the early read on Canada’s new openness is positive: for the first time ever, the initial marching orders for each of his ministers were made public. See the full list here. Canada still has a long way to go, as does the U.S.

You’ll find a treasure trove of information on Canada’s openness journey from professor Michael Geist.  He treats the issue of “Open by Default” with an eye towards social policy improvements in this article. The best open governments are still largely in Europe and Asia.  For a current view of government transparency and data sharing, see the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Global Open Data Index.

Global Open Data Index.  U.S. is #8, Canada is #17.  Trudeau wants to be #1…

What’s All This Open Data Talk, Anyway?

Open Data is part of a larger movement for open access to government and regulatory information, from registries to payments, strategic regional plans to research projects. The theory is simple: we as citizens ARE the government, and therefore have a right to understand and even re-use the information generated by municipal, regional, and federal entities. The reality is a bit more complex.

Some data is truly private and cannot be disclosed without impacting the people and entities named in the database.  Other data may be seen by the public as useful, but an honest question arises from the government database owners on the “why” and “what” of the final use in the public domain. On a technical level, it’s not always easy to extract this information in a way that makes it useful for the general public. Data might be stored in mainframes, in non-indexed file systems, or even in the most-unusable PDF formats.

And yet: we are all beneficiaries of Open Data in our daily lives. If you check the weather on your phone, use online maps, or view a television or web advertisement to find a product, you’ll be benefiting from data that has its origin in a government database.

Everything from political contributions, to business licences, to dog licences (yes, really) can make its way from the government database to a useful application or service that can improve your life. If you’re a researcher or just a casual data explorer, you can find aggregated data on just about any topic of interest.  Finding, cleaning, and analysing that data can be difficult — but it is possible.

Other initiatives related to Open Data include Open Access (for scientific research), Open Content (for arts and writing), Open Payments (payments to doctors by institutions and big pharma), and Open Spending (government payment registers). These and other Open Initiatives each boast one or more championing foundations, an active community of support, and several large and emerging companies and initiatives formed to make positive, ethical use of this information. A good overview of the Open Data movement can be found here.

We’ll give a deeper overview of the data available out in the market in a future post.  Here are a few North American sites to get you started on some data exploration:

  1. Open Payments: Doctor payments for research and sponsorship
  2. Canada’s Federal Open Data Portal
  3. US Federal Open Data Portal 
  4. Statistics Canada: aggregated demographic and industry information
  5. Open Knowledge Foundation: a global community of advocates for open government of all types

Commit yourself to spend one hour online, and simply enter “open data” in your search engine.  You will find more information than you ever knew was available online, most free for use.  (Fair warning: if you’re a data explorer, you will spend way more than an hour, guaranteed).

Wait, Are They Putting MY Personal Information Online?

By and large, the answer is “no”. In general, governments are the LEAST likely to publish personal/private information in the public domain. Internal government regulations are often much stronger than the regulations enforced on all enterprises for consumer privacy.

Don’t let the news articles fool you – government agencies are also much less likely to experience a breach than your typical corporation (which are also very unlikely to give out your data unintentionally). What won’t you find often with government agencies?

Attempts to “monetise” their data, in the way that many companies are trying to do today. Governments deal in public records, and you can trust that if it’s published, it’s intentional, follows the law, and the contents are considered fit for public use.

Public data from government agencies is almost always aggregated data (roll-up of multiple records, like the # of people who speak Korean in a census tract), or anonymiseddata (personal data removed from the record so the person cannot be located).

There are some exceptions, though, where you may find your personal name out there in a public database.  Your address will always be what you gave the government on creating your record (personal, university, or business):

  • You lead a research project funded by public sources
  • You receive an award or are on an official register
  • You are involved in a bid to provide government services
  • You make a political contribution to a candidate or party
  • You own a business or are have a business licence to perform a service

It’s this last category that forms the basis of the rel8ed.to Advanced Data solutions. We spend much of our time locating and processing Open Data from 100’s of North American public data sources to create unique views of corporations for our clients.

Most of the data we process is corporate information, but if you own the company or are a licenced operator or agent at that company, your name record is part of the public record, too.

So What Would Old Abe Say About Open Data?

Knowing his history as a politically-savvy lawyer representing powerful interests, Lincoln may have paused before completely opening up government datastores to the public in his time. His log-splitter routine was a solid PR move, and quite successful at that. He was a shrewd operator who knew how to cut deals and take care of his allies — Remember, he was nominated in the City of Chicago, after all!

And yet, the context of society has changed significantly over the last 40 years.  From a political perspective, the Open Government movement has the chance to be a sure winner with the public, as long as private data stays private – and it will.   Lincoln, in the context of today’s opportunities, would very likely land on the side of openness.

Maybe not with quite the same flair as Mr. Trudeau, which might be a good thing.  More and more cities, regions, and nations are opening up their storehouses in the name of Public Good, and the results in the market demonstrate that Open = Good for People.

At rel8ed.to, we believe that Open = Good for Business as well.  If you’re in business today, you’re already using this information in mundane ways – whether you think about it or not.  The real question for businesses in the Data Economy is:  what can Open Data do for me? Can I trust it?  Can it be cleaned, made actionable, and predictive of a company’s success in the market?

The answer to this question is a resounding “yes”.  You just need to know how to use it.

This post was written by Bob Lytle

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