Open and Shut? The Promise – and Problems – of Government Open Data Portals in Meeting Community Information Needs

Mar 3, 2023

Frank D. LoMonte, Brittany Suszan and Priya Dames

The open data revolution—a movement to liberate government-held information by publishing it online—holds enormous promise as a “force multiplier” for cash-strapped news organizations. Rather than consuming the resources of journalists and lawyers in fighting for access to government records, opening data voluntarily enables news organizations to devote their resources to adding value to government information through analysis and contextualization. But the reality of open data has yet to fully match its promise. This paper examines how and why, and recommends protocols to guide government agencies in selecting the highest-value datasets to publish.

Access to government data and documents is the fuel that powers investigative reporting. But the freedom-of-information (FOI) laws that entitle the public and press to government-held information are notoriously frustrating to use; compliance is often incomplete, costly and slow. Voluntarily opening high-value datasets to public inspection can complement FOI laws in ways useful both to agencies (sparing them from repeat requests for the same information) and for requesters (sparing them from the adversarial process of suing for access).

The first generation of government open data portals, however, has failed to garner widespread public engagement. Researchers have suggested that part of the problem is agencies’ failure to prioritize publishing the data that users actually need. To illustrate the shortcomings of municipal open data sites, the authors chose 30 cities of varying sizes and checked their websites for one of the highest-priority datasets in contemporary America: Instances in which police officers use force. Predictably, the review found that big cities – with the capacity to hire well-qualified information officers – were likely to publish the data, while small towns invariably did not.

Investing in open data is an investment in rebuilding frayed trust with a skeptical public. Reliable government data can be an asset in combating dis- and mis-information. But making this investment will require changing both government spending priorities and government custodians’ widespread cultural predisposition toward secrecy.

The authors recommend that, for open data portals to realize their civic potential, government agencies should prioritize the data they choose to publish by considering three priorities: Urgency, actionability, and verifiability. Although there is considerable controversy over whether news organizations should accept direct government subsidies, it would be uncontroversial for government agencies to support quality journalism indirectly, by lowering the barriers to obtaining useful information.