Governments should be using open data as a communication tool with the public, according to Socrata CEO Kevin Merritt.

“The open data movement or industry is moving beyond this version 1.0 era of just putting raw tables online and just hoping that somebody can make sense of it. And now there is a noticeable and apparent shift from quantity to quality,” Merritt said.

He explained that raw data sets are often unusable for the average citizen or small business that may want to better understand city trends or use the data themselves.

Kevin Merritt (Photo: LinkedIn)
Kevin Merritt (Photo: LinkedIn)

“It’s not optimized for that external audience that wants to find government data useful,” Merritt said. “Government and technology are two industries that are full of jargon. And so it becomes second nature just to use this jargon.”

He said that one of the solutions to creating more usable and understandable data is to have a process that takes the data from the database systems to the communications experts that can share it effectively with the public.

“In most government departments or agencies the individuals who have the technical acumen and the access control rights to get at the raw data as it sits in what are called the ‘line of business systems’ often don’t understand the data themselves. They don’t understand the semantics of what the data is about. There’s a different person who is more of what I would call an information worker, who understands the data, understands the type codes, understands the meaning of the data, but doesn’t have the technical acumen or the business control rights to get it out of the line of business systems,” Merritt said.

According to Merritt, once the data has been taken out of the line of business systems, “Then the communications team can take it and say, ‘well I’m not the subject matter expert on the data and I’m not the DBA, but I know how to communicate with the community that we serve about this data and I can write a narrative about it.’ ”

To this end Socrata is releasing the Socrata Publica Open Data Cloud and CrimeReports services to help Federal, state, and local government organizations communicate their data with the public. Part of this includes visualization engines such as Socrata Perspectives, “a drag-and-drop storytelling environment for a government to publish data with some narrative context.”

“The Publica Open Data Cloud will transform the ability of governments to work easily and effectively with large amounts of data,” said Brett Goldstein, co-founder and managing partner of Ekistic Ventures and former City of Chicago chief data officer.

For example, Merritt said, the city of Seattle wanted a way to publish data on construction increases in the city with a detailed explanation for why that was the case.

“They wanted to put the raw permit data online as well, but they wanted to support that with some text, with some video, with some charts and graphs and maps about what was driving the explosive growth in the city of Seattle,” said Merritt.

Similarly, police stations can use communication-based open data as a way to improve trust with their community.

“The idea there is trying to use data as a communication fire starter to try to rebuild some communication and trust between the police department and the communities they serve,” Merritt said. “So now more than a thousand police departments can publish their crime incident data in a very easy to use, easy to discover crime navigation, exploration experience.”

Governments can also use these initiatives to better understand what their own data means.

“Governments are starting to use their own open data to answer their own internal questions. Whereas in the past these might have been two different data streams,” Merritt said. “This whole idea of governments making their data online has gone mainstream. This is not a topic only for the largest governments or Federal agencies.”

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Jessie Bur
Jessie Bur
Jessie Bur is a Staff Reporter for MeriTalk covering Cybersecurity, FedRAMP, GSA, Congress, Treasury, DOJ, NIST and Cloud Computing.