April 21, 2015

Americans’ Views on Open Government Data


With the proliferation of cheap and portable storage of digital data and advances in the speed and availability of communications networks for moving bits around, data have become important in nearly every corner of society. Anything that can be digitized can be shared and data that can be shared can often be transformed — sometimes in ways that surprise those who generated the data in the first place. In areas such as commerce, entertainment, and news, the impacts of large volumes of data are visible for many Americans in a number of activities. It is evident in everyday Web browsing, the videos people watch, the reviews they read as the purchase products, and how they jointly tackle community problems.

When it comes to the government, the role of data may seem less prominent. Whereas some businesses appear to be data engines, government remains to many people a brick-and-mortar operation, with service delivery and deliberation taking place in buildings or in phone calls. Elected officials routinely conduct online “town hall” meetings and the image is animated by how many still think of electoral politics — playing out face-to-face between the candidate and voters.

Yet data and government activity increasingly go hand in hand. Collecting data is at the heart of any number of government functions, such as the decennial Census or data collection that measure economic change or climatological activity. Government also collects so-called “administrative data” as part of doing its business — data on who votes, who is buying real estate, who is driving cars, and more.

In recent years, governments at all levels have begun to understand the opportunities connected to government data. Similarly, advocates for more effective and efficient government have their own hopes for making government more transparent and helpful to citizens. In broad terms, the opportunities that officials and reformers envision fall into two categories:

Economic: Advocates hope that if government shares data effectively with the general public, entrepreneurs will think of ways to create commercial value from it — thereby spurring job creation.

Civic engagement: Proponents believe that governments should use data to better serve citizens at lower cost. In turn, improved government services will make citizens have more favorable views toward government.

These opportunities are on the supply side, that is, the benefits that come from opening the data floodgates, with government officials or citizens creating new things. This report focuses on the demand side, exploring where users of government services find themselves as government data shapes new ways of government-citizen interaction.

Past research has documented how people use the internet to connect with government — usually to find information or conduct transactions. In light of the growing volume and availability of government data and data about government, this report digs more deeply into users’ views. The main questions are:

  • How aware are Americans of the efforts by governments to share data with the public?
  • Does open data help Americans better keep track of government performance?
  • Do Americans think open data have made — or have the potential to make — government do its job better?
  • How do Americans use data-driven tools to carry out transactions with government or find information about government?

Background and Definitions: Open Government and Open Data

Open Data and Open Government are related notions and often thought to be interchangeable. Yet they are not quite the same, and indeed open government is about more than open data.2 One (Open Government) is an end and the other (Open Data) is a means to that end. Open Government is a policy posture of the Obama Administration and many governors and mayors of all political persuasions. The notion is to use modern technology and other tools to help citizens better understand how government works, more effectively engage with government, create economic value, and improve government service delivery.

Open government: Although the term “open government” has gained currency on the heels of several Obama Administration initiatives, its origin is decades old. In the 1950s, in congressional deliberations that culminated a decade later in the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), open government was seen (and the term first used) as a pathway to more government accountability. As the discourse and case law regarding FOIA evolved, the word “transparency” also entered the picture.3 Government had certain legislative mandates to share information about its operations with the public. Such transparency was a value in itself while also providing an accountability check on government officials. At the same time, government had to protect against the release of sensitive information (whether that pertains to individuals or national security).

Open data: It is both a subset of open government and a way to implement it. Whereas open government is a broad set of policy principles, such as “transparency, participation, and collaboration,” open data initiatives create the technical conditions so that the government can realize those principles. The Obama Administration made open government a priority from its earliest days, calling on the United States’ first Chief Technology Officer to develop an “Open Government Directive” that resulted in the development of open data policies.4 Out of this directive came “Project Open Data” which argues that government agencies’ principles toward data should be:

  • Public: Agencies should have a presumption that their data should be open, subject to laws and imperatives of privacy, confidentiality, security, or other valid restrictions.
  • Accessible: Data should be machine readable and easily retrievable and searchable.
  • Described: Open data should be clearly described so that users can understand how to use them, as well as the data’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • Reusable: Under open licenses, there should be no restrictions on use.
  • Complete: Data should be published in primary forms.
  • Timely: Data should be released as quickly as necessary to preserve its value.
  • Managed post-release: Agencies should designate a point-of-contact for data releases to respond to queries.5

As the issue has evolved in the past several years, open data has become associated with the two opportunities noted at the outset: economic growth and better government. Nick Sinai, former Deputy Chief Technology Officer sums up the thinking in saying the government wants “to continue opening up data that fuels private-sector innovation or helps build a more efficient and accountable government.”6

Operationally, advancing this agenda has meant convening and highlighting best practices. The U.S. Department of Commerce has taken an active role in bringing together stakeholders from industry and government to exchange views on government data — what industry sees as barriers to sharing and how government views possible constraints to doing so. In cooperation with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and GovLab at New York University, the Commerce Department hosted a June 2014 meeting to search for ways “to improve data management, dissemination, and use” with the hope that data will be “a cornerstone of economic opportunity for businesses and entrepreneurs.” An outcome of this convening was the creation of a Chief Data Officer position within the Commerce Department to promote the sharing of the department’s extensive data resources.7

At the municipal level, activists and public officials see data as a route to better democracy. As articulated by Stephen Goldsmith and Susan Crawford, technology and data analytics can, in combination with innovative government leadership, improve how government delivers services and even act preemptively to address problems that affect communities’ quality of life. That, they believe, can spark greater public trust in government and empower citizens’ voices in civic dialogue, thus “thickening the bonds of democracy and vibrancy of civic life.”8 Goldsmith and Crawford highlight examples of data-driven municipal innovation in New York, Boston, and Chicago, as well as states such as Indiana, but note the relevance of such initiatives in cities of all sizes and in all parts of an increasingly urbanized world.

These ideas and initiatives are on the cutting edge, which means knowledge and understanding of them will not be distributed evenly. This survey sets a benchmark for where American adults are in the nascent phase of open data and open government initiatives. The report that follows reveals tensions and opportunities as Americans acclimate to government that uses and generates more data:

  • The survey unearthed relatively high levels of broad and simple engagement with government data as people use the internet to access government services and information. At the same time, the survey shows relatively low levels of public awareness of government initiatives to open the data vaults for the public and entrepreneurs.
  • There is optimism among many citizens that government data can improve government accountability (against some caution that open data can improve government performance), along with some level of concern about government sharing data that may hit too close to home.
  • There is an uneven distribution of attitudes and uses of online government resources across the population.
  1. Alex Howard, “Data for the public good.” O’Reilly Media, February 22, 2012. Available online at: http://radar.oreilly.com/2012/02/data-public-good.html
  2. Harlan Yu and David G. Robinson, “The New Ambiguity of ‘Open Government.’” 59 UCLA Law Review Discourse, 2012. p 178-209. Available at: http://www.uclalawreview.org/pdf/discourse/59-11.pdf
  3. President Barack Obama, Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government (Jan. 21, 2009), available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/TransparencyandOpenGovernment
  4. Project Open Data, available at: https://project-open-data.cio.gov/
  5. Brad Grimes, “Open Data: An Interview with U.S. Deputy Chief CTO Nick Sinai.” FedTech Magazine, April 23, 2014. Available at: http://www.fedtechmagazine.com/article/2014/04/open-data-interview-us-deputy-cto-nick-sinai/
  6. GovLab, “Realizing the Potential of Open Government Data.” A Roundtable with the U.S. Department of Commerce, October 2014. Available at: http://opendata500.thegovlab.org/files/report-dep-of-commerce.pdf
  7. Stephen Goldsmith and Susan Crawford, The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance. Jossey-Bass, 2014, p. 157.