Do Universities, Research Institutions Hold the Key to Open Data’s Next Chapter

Ben Miller at Government Technology: “Government produces a lot of data — reams of it, roomfuls of it, rivers of it. It comes in from citizen-submitted forms, fleet vehicles, roadway sensors and traffic lights. It comes from utilities, body cameras and smartphones. It fills up servers and spills into the cloud. It’s everywhere.

And often, all that data sits there not doing much. A governing entity might have robust data collection and it might have an open data policy, but that doesn’t mean it has the computing power, expertise or human capital to turn those efforts into value.

The amount of data available to government and the computing public promises to continue to multiply — the growing smart cities trend, for example, installs networks of sensors on everything from utility poles to garbage bins.

As all this happens, a movement — a new spin on an old concept — has begun to take root: partnerships between government and research institutes. Usually housed within universities and laboratories, these partnerships aim to match strength with strength. Where government has raw data, professors and researchers have expertise and analytics programs.

Several leaders in such partnerships, spanning some of the most tech-savvy cities in the country, see increasing momentum toward the concept. For instance, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in September helped launch the MetroLab Network, an organization of more than 20 cities that have partnered with local universities and research institutes for smart-city-oriented projects….

Two recurring themes in projects that universities and research organizations take on in cooperation with government are project evaluation and impact analysis. That’s at least partially driven by the very nature of the open data movement: One reason to open data is to get a better idea of how well the government is operating….

Open data may have been part of the impetus for city-university partnerships, in that the availability of more data lured researchers wanting to work with it and extract value. But those partnerships have, in turn, led to government officials opening more data than ever before for useful applications.

Sort of.

“I think what you’re seeing is not just open data, but kind of shades of open — the desire to make the data open to university researchers, but not necessarily the broader public,” said Beth Noveck, co-founder of New York University’s GovLab.



Much of what GovLab does is about opening up access to data, and that is the whole point of Docker for Data. The project aims to simplify and quicken the process of extracting and loading large data sets so they will respond to Structured Query Language commands by moving the computing power of that process to the cloud. The docker can be installed with a single line of code, and its website plays host to already-extracted data sets. Since its inception, the website has grown to include more than 100 gigabytes of data from more than 8,000 data sets. From Baltimore, for example, one can easily find information on public health, water sampling, arrests, senior centers and more. Photo via Shutterstock.

That’s partially because researchers are a controlled group who can be forced to sign memorandums of understanding and trained to protect privacy and prevent security breaches when government hands over sensitive data. That’s a top concern of agencies that manage data, and it shows in the GovLab’s work.

It was something Noveck found to be very clear when she started working on a project she simply calls “Arnold” because of project support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The project involves building a better understanding of how different criminal justice jurisdictions collect, store and share data. The motivation is to help bridge the gaps between people who manage the data and people who should have easy access to it. When Noveck’s center conducted a survey among criminal justice record-keepers, the researchers found big differences between participants.

“There’s an incredible disparity of practices that range from some jurisdictions that have a very well established, formalized [memorandum of understanding] process for getting access to data, to just — you send an email to a guy and you hope that he responds, and there’s no organized way to gain access to data, not just between [researchers] and government entities, but between government entities,” she said….(More)