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Knight Funding Brings Open Data Institute Model to U.S.

BY Miranda Neubauer | Tuesday, October 29 2013

The U.K.-based Open Data Institute is coming to the U.S. with a $250,000 grant from the Knight Foundation. With the funding, open government technologist Waldo Jaquith will work to replicate the model of the ODI, which Sir Tim Berners-Lee co-founded last year. ODI's mission is to provide guidance on how to maximize the value of government open data by providing training and educational resources, conducting research, helping to certify open data releases, launching a challenge series and providing consultation responses to government policy proposals.

The U.S. initiative is part of a wider ODI effort to launch a global network of 13 "nodes" with the goal of bringing together companies, universities and NGOs that support open data projects and communities.

John Bracken, director of media innovation at the Knight Foundation, noted that "in a relatively short period of time ODI has built a lot of momentum." He praised the effort for being "robustly bipartisan," and successful at working with different political groups and organizations in the U.K. The funding grew out a visit by Knight staff to the ODI and meetings at the 2013 Aspen Institute's Forum on Communications and Society, which is also supported by the Knight Foundation.

"I think we're seeing a trend moving beyond transparency for transparency's sake," Bracken said. He pointed to Knight's support of the Sunlight Foundation, Code for America and the recent Knight News Challenge focused on open government. "We saw through that and some of our work with health data an increasing desire to focus on real needs and opportunities in communities with a more on-the-ground perspective." He added that Knight had worked with Jaquith previously on the State Decoded project. "He's exactly the right person to lead up this inquiry."

In an e-mail from London, where he is attending the Open Government Partnership annual summit, Jaquith wrote that he expected the U.S. ODI to go beyond the open data focus of groups like the Sunlight Foundation.

"We're looking for ways to have impact in new domains, to expand the boundaries of the definition of 'open data,'" he wrote. He noted that the term is often narrowly defined to refer to government and legislative data. "Not only are there many other kinds of data (run down a list of your state's agencies; they all hold valuable information, but how much of it is available as open data?), but there's a whole other domain of *non*-governmental open data (e.g. data held by private organizations who are interested in opening it up)," he wrote. "There's a strong focus on federal open data, and a few cities are enthusiastic about it, but on a state and municipal level, open data generally isn't even a thing."

The U.S. team also has an advisory board consisting of Aneesh Chopra, former U.S. Chief Technology Officer; Daniel X. O’Neil, executive director of the Chicago Smart Collaborative; and Max Ogden, open data developer and alumnus of Code for America.

"This is a 6-9-month push to figure out what the scale *can* be." Jaquith added. "In that period, there will be as many initiatives as possible, to find out what constitutes a sustainable level of work, what needs to be done, what's going to happen without the US ODI's involvement, etc. First we'll test-drive the organization, then we'll know what it's capable of," Jaquith wrote. "The ODI has created a modular, flexible, open pattern for running an open data organization, and I think it will serve the United States well."

He wrote that he expected the U.S. ODI to offer hands-on assistance to local, state, and federal government agencies interested in opening up their data. "We'll have 'circuit riders'-experienced open data developers who we'll assign to scrub in and assist government agencies who need help moving towards opening their data, at no cost to those agencies," he wrote. "We'll do a great deal of networking-introducing to one another the many people, organizations, businesses, and government agencies in the open data field, and trying to play matchmaker to solve standing open data problems and capitalize on opportunities."

Bracken said one challenge for the U.S. model might be the breadth of the U.S. government structure with the varied, overlapping and independent local, state, county and interagency government entities, but he also pointed to the momentum from Sunlight and Code for America projects as examples of how to realize the potential of open data efforts.

McKinsey released a study yesterday indicating that open data efforts could help generate $3 trillion to $5 trillion in economic value across the sectors of education, transportation, consumer products, electricity, oil and gas, health care and consumer finance. "Governments can set the tone for open data within a society, both by releasing data and shaping the policy environment. Public-sector agencies can be a key source of open data," the study notes. "An important first step is to set priorities for data release that are based on potential value, rather than ease of 'opening' the data for sharing."

Full disclosure: PDM co-founders Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry are senior advisors to the Sunlight Foundation.