Understanding the True Value of Data

Some government agencies aren’t opposed to opening up data for transparency sake. Instead, they are worried that they are being forced to give up a valuable resource for free. Washington D.C.‘s transit authority’s open data saga offers a useful example.

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While some government officials still fight open data efforts for fear of exposing embarrassing issues, hostility towards transparency isn’t the only issue that prevents cities and public agencies from opening up their data. Sometimes, government officials believe that data is a “strategic asset” that can be licensed and sold to generate revenue – a powerful argument in these budget constrained times.

In Washington, D.C., this issue has played out over the past several years in a saga chronicled on the Greater Greater Washington blog involving the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA), Google, and a cadre of developers and local bloggers.

After initially announcing in 2008 that it would not release it’s scheduling and routing information (partially because it believed its data was proprietary and a potential revenue source), a spirited campaign led by several local activists was launched to pressure the WMATA into changing its position. Progress was made when agency decided to publish its data online in early 2009, but with a somewhat restrictive license that limited its usefulness to some developers, including Google. In addition, WMATA was still interested in potentially charging for the data.

Issues also arose with WMATA’s use of predictive bus arrival technology. The agency contracts with a private company called NextBus, Inc. and provides with real-time GPS data about buses to generate arrival predications. Developers have asked WMATA for access to the same real-time data, but the agency has said that its contract with NextBus, Inc. prevented it from doing so.

Fortunately, the need to provide information to the public and government’s need for revenue are not mutually exclusive. Open data efforts have the potential to create new economic value (that is taxed) and reduce operating costs and expeditures – benefits far exceed the measly sums that most agencies receive from data sales. In some cases, it may be difficult to capture some of that revenue and feed it back to the appropriate agency, but in a transit agency’s case, the money saved from developing online trip planning services could easily equal the lost revenue from data licensing. Boston’s MBTA has been a leader in this regard – launching its own apps contest to encourage developers to create predicative bus and scheduling services.

WMATA itself has seemed to recognize this. After years of back and forth, WMATA has recently released a report that says the agency’s best interest is to release its data publicly and allow third-party developers to create new services, applications and analysis.

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Tags: infrastructurepublic transportationwashington dcgovernancebostonbusesappsinternet accessopen govopen cities

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