In the last 10 years, there has been a powerful push for governments at all levels to open the datasets they develop to the public. In 2015, the 3rd International Open Data Conference held in Ottawa, Canada showcased surprisingly rapid progress in the development of principles, standards, measurement metrics and road maps for the growth of open data. With broad statements of support and participation by a rapidly growing set of national, state and civic governments, the momentum is putting increasing pressure on all governments organizations to continue to do even more. And they should.
The goal of the open data initiatives is to increase government transparency and accountability in addition to increasing public participation in government. There are several definitions of what it means for the data to be “open”, but they all include the idea that the data must be free to be used, reused and redistributed by anyone.
An important side effect of opening up official information is how it can generate technological innovation and economic growth by enabling third parties to develop new kinds of insights, applications and services. In fact, opening government data may be thought of as an exciting new form of infrastructure investment that is taking its place alongside the construction of transportation and communication networks in support of a data-driven economy.
The result is opportunities for data scientists, in both the public and private sector, to access and build on these data sets. As with all datasets, the value can only be measured once it has been put to use. However, comprehensive information–including weather and environment, business and industry, census, health, and financial data (to name just a few of the categories available)–is being published in large volumes in the United States, Canada, EU and many other countries around the globe. There are directories and catalogs listing these sources, but they do tend to get out of date. The best way to locate relevant government data, generally, is to just search for the name of the government (city, county, state, national) along with the phrase “open data.”
I encourage you to locate and make use of these data sets for two reasons. First, it can enable data scientists to produce better analysis, faster and at lower expense that would be possible without these sources of public data. Second, and perhaps just as important, every time we use these open government datasets it makes it harder for them to stop producing them, thereby strengthening the movement to even more open government.