A Survey of Municipal Open Data Repositories in the U.S.

A Survey of Municipal Open Data Repositories in the U.S.

Bev Wilson (University of Virginia, USA) and Cong Cong (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA)
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 22
DOI: 10.4018/IJEPR.2020100101
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Cities in the United States are increasingly embracing open data as a means of advancing a variety of interests. Promoting transparency, facilitating public engagement, proactively managing records requests, and fostering innovation in the public and private sectors are among the commonly cited motivations for this phenomenon. While there is an extensive literature on the benefits and challenges of open government data, there are far fewer empirical studies that explore and document how these initiatives are unfolding at the local government scale. This article asks what kinds of data are being made open in U.S. cities and to what extent do open data policies and related regulatory actions matter in shaping the content and structure of public-facing repositories. The authors conclude that population size and regulatory actions exert a positive influence on the amount and variety of datasets provided through municipal open data portals. Implications for the design and governance of open government data initiatives at the local level are also discussed.
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1. Introduction

Many cities in United States have launched open data initiatives over the past decade (Johnson et al., 2017; Thorsby et al., 2017; Mergel et al., 2018). Open data have been defined as “data and content [that] can be freely used, modified, and shared by anyone for any purpose” (Open Knowledge Foundation, 2017) and is generally expected to be provided in a machine-readable format (Janssen et al., 2012). It has been argued that if government data is released in an open format, a variety of stakeholders and users can leverage this information for purposes that support and facilitate more inclusive and effective planning (Batty, 2013). While the arguments in favor of open government data (OGD) are well-documented (Kitchin, 2014; Wirtz & Birkmeyer, 2015), the effectiveness of these initiatives in achieving commonly cited aims of greater transparency and accountability, enhanced public engagement, and value creation (both commercial and social) remains unclear (Janssen et al., 2012; Attard et al., 2015). Prior studies have noted the need for systematic evaluation of OGD initiatives (Veljković et al., 2014), but in addition to a lack of conceptual clarity, progress toward benchmarking these efforts has been constrained by insufficient empirical evidence and a limited understanding of how the data, technologies, and over-arching policies shape and interact with the actors and institutions involved in using these resources to co-produce social and commercial value (Janssen et al., 2012). A comprehensive response to all these gaps and issues is beyond the scope of a single article, but this paper contributes to the existing literature by characterizing the landscape of OGD initiatives at the municipal level in the United States. We consider formal regulations governing the provision of open data and present empirical evidence that documents the content and structure of public-facing data repositories in order to answer two related research questions:

  • What kinds of data are being provided through municipal open data repositories in the United States?

  • Do open data policies and regulatory actions matter for the content and structure of municipal OGD repositories in the United States?

This paper begins with an overview of open data and open government initiatives that highlights common goals and motivations for these endeavors. Next, we present the results of an inventory of municipal open data repositories around the United States and discuss both similarities and differences in their contents. The influence of formal open data policies and open government regulations on the kinds of data that are provided is then considered by reviewing a smaller sample of cities from the larger inventory with contrasting regulatory contexts regarding data sharing. Much of the existing literature on open data focuses on national efforts and the leading edge of research continues to be conducted outside of the United States. As a result, this article responds to a gap in the literature with respect to the provision and governance of open government data in the United States at the local level.

Empirical studies that focus on the provision of open government data hosted on public-facing portals are few in part because of “the large number of diverse data structures that make the comparison and aggregate analysis of government data practically impossible” (Attard et al., 2015, p. 400). We present a novel approach for gathering information on the contents of public-facing open data portals, then standardize the results to compare across cities, drawing inferences about the priorities and other factors shaping municipal open government data initiatives. We hypothesize that in addition to the size and by extension, financial resources of a city, the existence of a formal legislation and executive leadership are the most important predictors of the extent open government data provision. Finally, we expect that information that is part of a mandated reporting processes (e.g., crime statistics, budgets), that is easy to share due to existing standards (e.g., GTFS) and a lack of privacy concerns, and that are of interest to an audience external to government are the most likely to be published.

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