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The open data follow-through that could create real value

An executive with Waterfront Toronto suggests that merely releasing information that runs on government networks isn’t enough


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Even if you live in a place that has an “open government,” there are probably still a few areas that remain closed off.

For years now, municipalities, provinces and even federal departments have launched open data programs whereby they have released massive amounts of information they have collected for reuse or repurposing by the general public. There is much to admire in these initiative, which range from Treasury Board Secretariat’s recent push to encourage the creation of apps based on open data to the Ontario government’s system to vote on the release of datasets. After attending the recent Mesh conference in Toronto, however, I realized those things may not be enough in the long run.

In a session that focused on smart cities, Waterfront Toronto’s Director of Intelligent Communities Kristina Verner suggested that much of what’s happening with open data today is only scratching the surface.

“We need to take it beyond apps competitions,” she said, referring to the CODE event hosted by Treasury Board and similar projects. “It’s not just a case of (developing open data to find out) when the next train is coming, but making it more of an integrated offering to folks to bring value to their lives.”

Verner didn’t offer a lot of specifics, but she did say that we might want to think about ways to use not only data the government collects but “private data” from energy companies, transport systems and the like. Obviously no one wants to expose personally identifiable information, but if it could be aggregated and anonymized, Verner said, there might be even more useful ways to repurpose it.

The first step might be getting more private sector firms interested in open data. A recent announcement from the World Bank about its Open Private Sector platform is an example of how that’s beginning. Just creating the platform doesn’t remove some of the challenges, however, as the World Bank’s Benjamin Hertzberg noted:

“Previously, captured knowledge was power in the business world. Now, in the hyper-connected and ever-evolving world, transparency is the new power, because it helps the private sector reduce cost and better manage risk,” he writes. “However, as demand rises from companies for more transparency and openness, the gap widens between the companies that have the capacity and funds to afford open and collaborative behaviors, or to make use of open government data, and those who don’t.”

There are still challenges in how private sector firms would share their data with each other, the government and the public. Most networks today were set up to treat data like crown jewels that sit inside a fortress. Verner, however, believes anything is possible if organizations adhere to one governing principle.

“The networks are there. We’ve got the plumbing done, (and) the analytics to handle multiple data sets in a secure way,” she said. “What’s really important is that the conversation doesn’t stall at technology or data. We need to keep the people in mind rather than the coolest, slickest, fastest toys.”

Whatever runs over the networks of the future — whether they are based in the public or private sector — it will not only have to be delivered with speed, reliability and security. It may also need to be optimized for shared and unanticipated use cases. This is an under-discussed challenge that enterprise IT departments could soon face — if their organizations are open to it.

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