Five Years of Open Data—Making a Difference

by Jeanne Holm

In May 2009, was an experiment. There were questions: would people use the data? would agencies share the data? and would it make a difference? We’ve all come a long way to answering those questions, starting with only 47 datasets and having 105,000 datasets today.  We realized that this was never simply about opening up government data, but rather about growing and nurturing an open data ecosystem to improve the lives of citizens.

Putting the Data to Work

Hundreds of companies, like those featured at the Open Data 500, are using data to create services and products.  From agriculture to housing—businesses of all shapes and sizes are reliant on government data. During the last five years, there have been moments when someone was poised to use open data at a moment of crisis or opportunity. Some of these highlights include:Arc hurricane

  • The Red Cross, working with the Department of Transportation, released a Hurricane App just as Hurricane Sandy touched ground—helping 700,000 people be safer that first day alone
  • Organizations have come to life around helping others and getting them data to inform their consumer decisions
  • A new level of digital democracy was reached when India and the United States, and later Canada and Ghana, created the Open Government Platform, a shared, open source system for open data portals
  • City, county, and state data was integrated with federal data to make a truly a national open data portal

People today are using open data in even more creative ways. Civic hackers, designers, and developers, young and old, are being educated and connected through Code for America, Code Academy, and others that give them the tools to put the data to work and growing that ecosystem of developers and consumers of the data.

Making More Data Available

Much of the first year of was spent on gathering the fuel for the ecosystem—open data. Open data teams at each agency and worked together to change the culture from a “how will we release this data” to “what is the impact on Americans when we release this data.” With clear direction from the White House in the Presidential Transparency and Open Government memo, the Digital Government strategy, and the Executive Order for Open Data, people at 175 agencies and 77 other organizations today continue to release more data, more accessible data, and new web services and APIs.2 In using social media, sponsoring data jams and paloozas, creating and moderating the Open Data Stack Exchange, and transparently sharing code and issues on Github, and data publishers are listening to and working directly with researchers, innovators, data scientists, and data journalists to create a better platform with more data every day.

Making a Difference

So, has the release of government data helped to improve the lives of Americans?  In just the last three years, has grown to include:

  • 4.5 million unique visitors
  • 105,000 data collections
  • 447,000 data resources
  • 227 organizations publishing data
  • 4700 people attending the International Open Government Data Conference online and in person
  • 21 topics
  • Citizens from 195 countries have visited the site

Clearly, the answer is that people are working with open data, but there is still much more to do. Groups like the Sunlight Foundation and data journalists help to advocate for the release of new data in machine-readable formats, and citizen groups create activities and initiatives around the data. As one example, behind the topics highlighted on (such as climate, health, safety, and ocean), are communities of people from around the country and around the world who strive together to get specific data released to help solve humanity’s challenges. The community behind hosted an event last year that led to the formation of the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) initiative that focuses on food security and mitigating hunger in developed and developing nations.

What Is Your Story?

You’ve heard here about some of the open data stories powered by data on  Now, we are issuing a call for YOUR story. Tell the world what open data means to you.  What have you built? How have you made a difference? What still needs to be accomplished?  Answer the call for Open Data Stories: what we’ve accomplished, understood, and are still exploring after five years. Post a video, write a blog, or send a tweet (#OpenDataStory) and let us know.  We will connect the stories and highlight what you are doing. Be creative, be innovative, and let all of us celebrate your story.

Each person makes a difference—whether you are a researcher, developer, data scientist, business owner, innovator, data publisher, or citizen—each part of the ecosystem is important in our shared vision of making the world a better place through transparency, openness, and knowledge. Be part of the future and celebrate how far we’ve come—share your story, share your vision.

One Response to “Five Years of Open Data—Making a Difference”

  1. Brand Niemann

    The initial value proposition of open government data and by Vivek Kundra was that the integration of multiple data sets would led to more innovation and jobs. See:

    After five years of experience, my conclusion about the value of open government data was that the real demonstrated value is with statistical data which has been publicly available for many years. Specifically, I know of only one example where multiple government health data sets were integrated with considerable effort and expertise to win a $100,000 Health Datapalooza competition several years ago.

    My five years of experience with this is as follows:
    I was asked to pilot the original which I did using the Census Bureau’s Annual Statistical Abstract as a best practice example;
    years later I then was asked by to pilot My for how I would do it after had encountered one problem after another;
    when I left government service I was paid as a data scientist/data journalist to write stories about the value of and its most popular data sets; and
    finally I was retained as a consultant to the Japanese government to design and pilot their Open Government Data Program to benefit from’s mistakes (proprietary software, poor quality data sets, and lack of budget support) and I recommended they use their statistical data and they did.

    In a recent NSF FASTER presentation Dr. Theresa Pardo agreed with my points above and that the value of Open Government Data has yet to be quantified and that statistical, and now scientific data, are the most promising areas for doing that.

    So my recommendations for what should be done to create more public value from open government scientific data is to make scientific publications “data publications”. See

    Dr. Brand Niemann
    Director and Senior Data Scientist
    Semantic Community

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