How to Open Government?

Photo Credit  via Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit via Flickr / Creative Commons

So, this is something I have been thinking about for a while now.

I have friends who are supporters of open data writ large, for several reasons.  Use of open data techniques creates a general transparency for public analysis, which is good for citizens and for journalists who are trying to report on government and public affairs.  It makes it easier for staff and planning professionals to do their jobs.  And, at least theoretically, it makes it easier for citizens to supervise the actions of their elected officials -- it makes it harder to "hide the ball."

However, I am also an elected official in Crystal City -- a small town in Missouri.  And while all that sounds very nice, most of the efforts I see toward "open data" for government are directed at large cities or major metropolitan areas, not at cities our size.  Our staff does not include a web developer, and our web site is sadly out of date.  We have a high degree of vendor lock-in with our current administrative systems vendor, whose software handles everything from police bookings to water bills.  I have no idea what options they might offer, if any, that would make it easier to publish our data in an open fashion.

Complicating this is my lack of understanding of exactly what open data means.  It definitely seems to mean different things to different people.  Some are talking about crime reporting; some are talking about financial data; some are talking about statistics for things like broken sidewalks and potholes.

So, let's say hypothetically that a small city with no technical staff wanted to participate in an open government / open data initiative.  Here are the questions I have:

  • What does that mean, in language that a typical elected official can understand?  Is there a standard for reporting formats that we can say we comply with?
  • What does that participation get for the local government, specifically, that it was not already getting?  (I've found that we can comply with standards more readily if it means extra grant money or matching funds.)
  • How would we go about doing this, given our lack of technical staff and funds to outsource those functions?  Can we do that with our current technology vendor? If not, who are the players who are providing standardized software for doing this?

I think most elected officials are interested in transparency, but we aren't sure how best to provide it, and we aren't sure what tangible benefits it might offer.  Therefore, it never rises to the top of the priority list.  I would appreciate any pointers or tips that open government folks can offer.