Experts Weigh Opportunities and Challenges of Public Open Data

Civic engagement. International politics. Data transparency. These were some of the key themes emerging from the September 12 conference, “Can Open Data Improve Democratic Governance?” Co-sponsored by the Institute for Governmental Studies and the CITRIS Data and Democracy Initiative, the event brought together researchers, policy experts, government officials, and industry leaders to discuss how best to use the information generated on a daily basis to help people make decisions for themselves and their community.

The morning opened with informative examples of civic engagement on multiple scales: city, state, federal, and international. Speakers noted innovative uses of data collected and published by government agencies, such as at Once the data is made public, entrepreneurs or volunteers can use it to create apps for numerous purposes, including weather predictions, medical advice, education rankings, and many more. However, challenges remain to be solved, especially with regard to interoperability and common standards: agencies may collect different data sets or use inconsistent methods, and discrepancies in local environments may not be accounted for properly in data analysis.

Moving forward, the participants talked about a global movement to provide transparency and democratization of data. For example, provides more than 75,000 data sets from governments, companies, and nonprofits across the globe on topics including health, commerce, energy, and education. Similarly, the African Development Bank has launched open data platforms for 20 countries on the continent and intends to complete platforms for the remaining countries as part of its “Africa Information Highway” initiative.

In his sweeping keynote talk, Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom asked “how can we govern with the tools of technology as effectively as we campaign with technology?” He encourages citizens to use technology and social media to get involved, learn about the political process, and work to make changes. His comments—elaborated in his recent book Citizenville—draw on his years of experience as both a public politician and a private entrepreneur. In the second keynote address, Steven Adler, an information strategist at IBM, discussed how his company is working with researchers around the world to create, analyze, and use data to affect policy. As he noted, computer modeling will be most effective if policymakers have information in advance of events—natural disasters, financial crises, transportation disruptions—in order to plan ahead. If we ask the right questions, the data is there to discover the solutions.

Watch videos of panel discussions and presentations from this symposium on the CITRIS YouTube Channel.