Open government data is world-wide, gaining in priority, and creating jobs

I originally shared this with readers of Fortune but wanted to share it here as well as it is a great example of how open government can be used to not just make government more effcient, but also to make the local economy more robust.  I hope you find it helpful.

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, was not talking about Open Government data or job creation when he spoke of, “government of the people, by the people, for the people” in the Gettysburg Address. However, within the address he provided us with words of wisdom that we must look to once again, words that provide us a formula we can follow for job creation through the changes created by the move to Open Government.

I blogged, not long ago, that the return on investment (ROI) of open government data was job creation. This article came as a result of listening to Carolyn Lawson, Technology Services Governance Division, State of California, discuss the Apps for Californians contest that took place earlier in 2010. From this contest 5 winners were selected and 5 companies were created or extended. Jobs were created.

You may be asking yourself a few questions.

  • What is open government data? Government agencies have data on budgets, transit systems, housing, education, and much, much, more. This data, minus anything that is privacy or legally restricted, is open government data.
  • What are application contests like Apps for Californians? Government entities are opening up data and are looking to the private sector to leverage this data to create value-added applications. These contest reward offer incentives to the private sector to use this data in return for monetary rewards, marketing, and/or developer assistance.
  • Is this a good use of taxpayer money? We'll explore that in this article and you can decide.
As 2010 began California was not seen as a leader in terms of open government data. In January the project kicked off to change this, resulting in the Apps for Californians contest that was launched in June of 2010. Unfortunately, as is often the case, Carolyn had responsibility for getting the job done but did not have the resources, the budget, or the authority required to mandate any other teams priorities. How did she get the project done?
  • An internal group that owned a lot of data was brought into the project. The team had a great deal of experience providing data to other teams in California government and they were brought on board in January, months ahead of the June deadline.
  • They sought out partners in the private sector who had experience with managing data-focused communities. Unfortunately, with no money to offer there was little interest with the exception of ProgrammableWeb. Programmableweb went above and beyond in terms of providing the necessary infrastructure that Carolyn was looking for, of course, but they also provided guidance about the world of data and mash-ups and became a valued partner in the process.
  • Outreach: A volunteer group of California webmasters was made aware of the project. This group, in existence since 2006, meets regularly to discuss software, train each other on new technologies, and to support each other through difficult projects. Members of this volunteer team worked overtime on multiple occasions to make the contest a reality.
  • The focus of the contest was not what people could do for government; instead, it was for the people. The name, Apps for Californians reflected this very simple, yet important, change in focus. This focus was critical as California was unable to provide any monetary prizes. Instead, the developers participating were involved because the contest could provide economic value to the developers themselves.
Programmableweb evaluated the applications that were submitted, doing the bulk of the heavy lifting once the contest began. The evaluation process is time consuming, ensuring the applications are doing the job advertised and ensuring that nothing being done violated any copyrights. 5 winners were chosen; you can read more about them on the California web site. However, the economic gains achieved are clear and were demonstrated in these ways:
  • Marketing of capabilities: A couple of companies took the opportunity to build useful applications to demonstrate their ability to work with real data and to win additional business. Citizens and California Government won, the businesses invested little and clearly won as well.
  • New businesses created: Seeing opportunities to create powerful new mash-ups some new businesses were formed. While the long-term value of these businesses is yet to be demonstrated jobs have been created already.
Jobs and new market opportunities were clearly created. However, have any efficiency been created as a result? Theoretically yes, but it is too early to provide any true assessment of publishing this information in an open format.

While the results from this one contest are promising, the full value is far from being achieved. In order to fully realize benefits from open data government must finally go “all in” and stop putting out mandates that lack economic goal-oriented focus. In California, as we discussed, these wins came as a result of a mandate to open up data, not to create jobs and not to reduce operating costs. If a true Open Government Office were established at the state level we could go far further. The office must:

  • Have clear goals in terms of jobs created and operating costs reductions.
  • Must be budgeted and staffed. Today's e-services office, which ran this, is not a formal organization. It is given mandates but not authority or budget.
  • Establish strategic partnerships INSIDE and OUTSIDE of government. Partnering with the private sector, with Higher Education, and with other agencies to meet its goals will increase cooperation, collaboration, and bring all of us to a focus on what matters now: job creation.
Why should we add more structure to government? Today no one is really responsible for maintaining sites like the California Open Government Data site. That volunteer group of webmasters, often working overtime so as to not impact their "day jobs" gets it done because they care, not because it is their job. We can only count on the passion and caring of government employees for so long. Ultimately, politicians must put focus on ensuring these efforts continue and thrive, so we the public can reap the benefits. Otherwise, those working "for the people" may simply choose, or be forced, to go do something else.

Great primer

Hi John, thanks for posting this, I’ve shared it on Twitter as I think it’s a gives a good overview for non-geeks and people who are not familiar with the space. I wonder, would it be feasible to have budding journalists, or people who ought to be interested in the topics and need to learn  community management to be engaged in managing the sites? What would they need to know/ which skills do you think they would need to have in order to be able to get the job done…so for example if you were recruiting for this kind of position, who wouold your ideal candidate be and why? lots of questions, hope you don’t mind :slight_smile:

Great questions

Non-technically-minded people could, and should, manage the projects and define the goals based upon strategic initiatives, not just based upon what is easiest to code.  They must then recruit and work closely with the technical communities around them to achieve the final results.

I would be looking for people with project management skills who are able to understand the problems of government agencies and their teams who could translate these challenges into challenges that the agencies (in terms of exposing data) and the technical community (in terms of solving the problems) could partner on.

The ideal candidates must be good commmunicators, great listeners, and passionate about achieving results.

Civil / Military Cooperation in Disaster Relief Situations

Hi John.

I worked for quite a while on civ/mil cooperation for disaster relief. I’m an open source guy (well, actually a Free guy, to use Stallman’s Distinction, but more pepole understand Open Source than Free these days!). was the major output of that process. It’s a big open clearing house for disaster relief information and an ongoing conversation about those issues of sharing and cooperation between a variety of miliary, civilian and state actors. They do really good work.

Now we’re in a rather interesting situation. Open Data and Open Government go closely together but it’s also blurring ownershp of certain types of capability. A really simple example is searching government web sites: people use Google. But the government doesn’t own Google, and neither do the people: the most advanced user of the goverment’s data is actually a private company, which is now providing a service to the public based on government data, but not actually accountable. Although in theory the Public could build something to replace Google for searching their data, in practice that’s not happening.

In the case of novel applications, where there’s a possibility of patenting a method or an application which runs on top of publid data to produce a proprietary-and-non-replaceable service, Open Data starts to export capability from the State to the Market in a way which we’ve found, historically speaking, is Unhelpful.

So (and excuse the length of my preamble) here’s my question: do we need to mandate that Open Data can only be used in Open Source applications to prevent proprietary applications basically renting the public’s own data back to them, with patent coverage to prevent competition?

Or is that an issue we don’t have to face at the moment? I feel that this is a very deep question about the nature of Open, and who’s-the-public, which is at the heart of a lot of our issues with the State / Market / Society matrix.



I love this question


This is an excellent question

In my opinion one of the benefits of government open data is a potential positive economic impact in terms of market and job creation.  Companies and individuals will only invest their time and energy  in building solutions on top of government open data if their is an economic benefit to those groups.

Now, this economic benefit does not need to be driven from current models of capitalism, they could be driven by government grants and other rewards that benefit individuals and corporations, providing sufficient motivation.

I sincerely like this type of model as it would require governments to step back and take a more strategic approach to what data is released, how it works with organizations, etc…  I would prefer, for example, that countries focused on streamlining their budgets, adding more transparency to where money is spent and how decisions are made.  If governments were to partner, proactively, with organizations to meet these goals, to release the right data, and to reward these partners that make it happen, we might see quicker adoption of open data to solve REAL problems. Citizens, politicians, and government employees would get excited.

I need to put more thought into this, Vinay, but their is a model here that could be very intriguing.

It’s all about licensing

The short answer to your question, Vinay, is “no”. Most open data activists push for releasing data under licenses that don’t forbid commercial uses, such as Creative Commons Zero (CC0). Many people think that companies should be encouraged to build businesses on top of public sector information and open data. That, in principle, can create a conflict. I remember an example from Norway, in which one company pulled data from the weather service, put it on a website and stuck Adsense on it. They got a lot of visits, and had a small business going: it was literally a matter of building the website, then standing back and watching the money roll in. A year later, the weather service renovated their own website and put up an almost identical looking map of Norway with icons to signify weather conditions, based, of course on the same data - but with no Adsense. The company protested: the weather service was displacing private business! But the weather service claimed that Norwegian taxpayers had purchased those data already, and they had a right to accessing them at no extra cost.

I wrote “in principle”, because in practice I am not sure this is even  a problem. I doubt a sustainable business can be built on the basis of a dataset that is free for all to access. Maybe the only situation in which this can happen is a market that is just large enough to accomodate one firm. This seems what is happening in the USA with the Weather Channel, one of my favourite TV channels ever (24/7/365 weather forecast in all possible flavours!!! I used to watch it all the time when I was on tour in the US). It runs on open data, but apparently there is no market for two 24/7 weather channels, so their business is safe and profitable (and poses a fairness issue in my view: but you can regulate it in principle, so to extract parrt of the positional rent).

Anyway, you can fine-tune the use people make of the data by using the appropriate license, like Creative Commons - Noncommercial. The consensus in the open data movement seems to be you don’t want to do that.  The problem you raise, in my view, is one of security and accountability of access to the data: you can’t stop people using Google from searching gov websites, but what you can do is provide open, well-documented APIs and licenses to your data. Then, if Google turns evil or goes down, access can be rebuilt on top of the existing infrastructure.

Overpromise alert!

John, I am a fan of open data just as the next guy. But really, I think the evidence for declaring that Apps for Californians created jobs is probably still a bit thin. I looked at the five winners:

  • California Cage Fight compares stats for any two counties. Cute, but hardly game-changing. Also some visualization problem when overlapping two data series that differ by orders of magnitude: the lower one looks like it's flattened on the X-axis. I would have used a logarithmic scale...
  • California Environment Report: Cleanup Sites and Permitted Facilities is a georeferenced list of cleanup and permitted landfilling sites. For me, the best of the lot.
  • California View returns a "not found" at the time of writing this
  • DataCalifornia is... several apparently unrelated things, some of which overlap with GMaps (search for hospitals) or SeeClickFix (the "fix" functionality).
  • ZonabilitySF seems promising, but so far it is a mockup.
Based on your story, I would probably guess that the main beneficial legacy of the whole operation has been to establish a relationship of trust and collaboration between the Technology Services Governance Division and this one company, Programmableweb. These relationships are very valuable for government agencies, and can be generative. Also, if I were Carolyne I would keep winners and finalists on my radar, hey could come in handy when the next project comes around. But creating jobs? Not sure. Look, it's not even a problem because, as you wrote, that was never the mandate. On the other hand, overpromise may backfire, and it usually does. Why risk it?

Thanks Alberto

Alberto, thanks for the comments.

You are right and the fact that jobs were created was a secondary win.  Of course, at the time that I wrote it the contest looked like it was going to lead to even more jobs, jobs that have not materialized as much as expected.

Why?  The CIO of the group moved on, the state did not continue the investment, focus was taken off the ball.

These are the reasons I am constantly pushing more on strategic planning, management, and analysis vs. simply deploying tools.  To often we are losing ground as we see turnover in personnel because the gains have been quick technology wins.

Our challenge is to ingrain a new philosophy, an approach to better government.

No despair

…at the same time I am sure the people involved fulfilled their mandate and learnt a lot. No public money was wasted. Which is what it was all about. At the next iteration, everybody will be more ready!

Count on the fingers of one hand

I remember when you posted this article in Fortune.

Yes, I remember it very well. It encouraged me to think that we would succeed in launching projects. That would be able to create jobs (beginning with our own jobs).

Create jobs around open government principles and philosophy, we tried to develop this market as much as we could over the past year. At one point, I seriously wondered if I lacked skills in business development.  This Summer, I was really upset at myself! The methods I used for many years ― they worked well enough all my life ― have yielded no tangible financial results.

In Quebec, we can count on the fingers of one hand the number of jobs that exist in this area. Diane Mercier from City of Montreal ( Jean-François Gauthier from Loran Technologies (, they apparently got a contract with one of the 100 ministries and government institutions. I cannot think of anyone else. Maybe one or two employees were hired temporarily by the Gautrin group?

I asked the government of Quebec to grant me access to its program for self-employed workers, so that I could create my own job in the opengov field. I carefully examined each of the criteria of this program. I thought that I was eligible.

First, they ignored me for 3 months. I asked to meet in person with the general director of the organisation mandated for this program management in my area. Their team refused to see me. They set up interviews with all the candidates that apply to this program, but they refused to meet with me. I called Emploi Québec. They said that I had to get an interview with this organisation, there was no other organisation but this one in charge of the program in my area. Instead of taking a decision, the general director demanded that a member of the National Assembly of Quebec take the decision for him! The MP contacted transfered me to another MP. The final answer arrived on September 1st, twenty days prior to the Open Government Partnership launch at UN in New York: ‘The project does not fit entrepreneur criteria’. What?! At the same period, 46 countries have lined up behind the OGP project.

There is something obviously very wrong here…

I fit the group of ‘non-technical’ workers, good commmunicator, great listener, and passionate about achieving results. that you mention, John. I believe I have these skills. But this does not lead to any job in my country.

A member of the National Assembly was even asked to intervene, to block me access to employment.

What to do?

I know. I'll ask an audience with the Pope.

Change name of the mission please

I have a suggestion.

I find that the content of this mission belongs more with the 2nd Edgeryders campaign, MAKING A LIVING. I am not sure exactly which of the 4 missions…

John did not really answer the questions of the mission brief he wrote himself! He told me he will start over another thread (mission ‘Spotlight: open government’) to describe what has been done regarding open government in his country and worldwide, and explain what he’s been doing in this area.

We could keep this thread, and continue to discuss about the potential for development of new opengov opendata markets… stuff having to do with job creation… but I would give it another name of mission. Do you agree?

I agree

I sincerely apologize.  In my quickness to try and help I may have confused things a bit.  Thank you in advance for correcting.

I disagree

Making a living is about personal experiences, not potential for employment policies (that will come too, but our role is provide experiential data from people who traverse labor markets). John here is using an example of a real world opengov project to discuss opengov itself as a part of the new world young people are builiding. I think it is quite correct - though of course our articulation in campaigns is an ontology, and all ontologies are arbitrary and subject to breakdown.

Of course, John could do a mission like “the quest for paid work” in which he explains us how he built himself a profile in order to make a living in opengov. Or he could do “Spotlight: social innovation” using Govinthelab as the socially innovative company that he built. Each of these stories would fit well under the Making a living campaign, but it would also be a completely different perspective.

Data and knowledge

Like Germans, French philosophers like to speak of History before speaking about the core point. 80 years ago, French anthropologist Georges Henri Rivière had the idea to build a museum actually known as “Musée national des arts et traditions populaires” Musée national des arts et traditions populaires — Wikipédia

Through the woeld others anthropologists and floklorists had the same ideas. But I speak about what I know. The core of this museum is interviewing people about what they do as farmers, butchers, carpenters, and so on, taping, recording objects linked to their jobs and making available this material for the industry. Politicians, anthropologists and others supposed with this material little factories, craftmen would be able to innovate.

But, it did not work. Why? In my idea, my experience, it’s very difficult to record the whole knowledge use by workers, first. Second, the way these knowledges are recording is not correlate with the way used by the end users (factories, craftmen, and so on).

Are open data usable? For a part the answer is yes because data are less than knowledge. they look like raw materials. But they look also like garbage. Garbage and raw materials are usable for industry. But what sort of industry and for the use of what?

Some years ago I work as a consultant for strategy. The company for which I worked, produced a lot of data not used. With others I was able to show how to use these data to design new products, cheaper for new markets or new consumers. But this idea failed because the company was not shapped to industrialize these products, to sell it or to get money for financing these new activities.

That is to say that open data are not useful, usable, for an other part.

We have to think Open Data as a problem of Industrialization and not just as a political problem. We have to change customs, ways of thinking, acting, shaping companies because a company which uses open data is first a true knowledge company and its products are knolewdges and other data. “Objects”, “Services”, are by-products not the core of the activity.

What do you thing about my thesis?

Not do, enable (that’s the beauty of it!)

First of all, I think that you write great English!  :-)

I cannot speak for John, of course. My opinion is: not necessarily the entity that produces open data will be the entity using them. Actually, the whole idea - si j’ai bien compris - is re-use: for example, the city of Milano collects data on air pollution in town to regulate traffic. I might reuse the same data to make a map for runners, updated in real time, of where in the city you can run without choking.

The city would have a very hard time thinking up and implementing something like the map for runners: in this I agree with you, that’s just not what they do. But if they release the data, they enable other people, who are actually “true knowledge organizations”, as you say, to do it. That’s the beauty of it!

Je rougis

I flush and I agree about what you say. A problem I have not speaking about is “Echangeabilité”. “Echangeabilité” is a manner to understand human societies as loci where all the products (objects, ideas, etc.) may be swapped.

We no that as markets. But for a market works we need money. Does exist enough money to paid new products build from open data without killing other industries, others jobs?

My question is now: Have, “We the people”, Politics, …  to think about the Money, the Value in the manner to ease “Opan Data Industry” without killing jobs? Or, do we think that this new industry will be able to use the workers from other industries even without professional qualification?

I believe that Open Data and OpGov are good ways for the Future. I believe we have to act and to think about in the same time. If we don’t, Open Data as a citizen movement will stop.

Have a look to OWS.

The ultimate question

Do we have the money to create a new market around open data and open data applications…

If people believe in the size of any market they will invest in it.  The need to demonstrate the potential opportunity exists.  we just need a business champion who is able to recognize it and one who is entrepreneurial enough to invest in creating it.

Have we hit the bottom yet?


Leadership is very important.  I believe it will take much more than a champion. Maybe a team of several leaders could succeed. Andrea Di Maio spoke a few months ago about the “frustration of a leader of open government.” He explained that despite the fact that many opengov projects have been completed to date, these projects have only scratched the surface. They failed to transform the government.This does not translate into the changing the way government conducts business”, said Di Maio. (

He believes that unprecedented budget constraints and the threat of continuity of government operations and services could soon lead to the expected change.

In other words, when the government will be up against the wall, and it will have no other choice, then it will be forced to change. Change or die… These perspectives do not please me at all. Have we hit the bottom yet? If not, how long until we get to the bottom? What extraordinary impulse will it take to go back to the surface? I’m afraid of Di Maio’s statement, but I must admit that it makes sense

One could compare his statement to a morbidly obese person, whose health is seriously threatened, that must give up his/her bad habits to embrace a healthier way of life. Given the monumental effort and an unwavering commitment to be deployed in such a case, there is reason to wonder what kind of government leadership and teams will be required to initiate and carry out such a change.

Therefore, I agree with what you proposed, and see leadership not as root cause for change, but as the solution to achieve it.


Je ne pense pas que davantage de gouvernement ouvert «tuera des emplois».

Les estimations de développement des affaires en lien avec les données ouvertes sont optimistes pour le secteur privé.

Dans une allocution portant sur les données ouvertes (, le chancellor George Osborne du Royaume-Uni a indiqué: “This approach – using large datasets to search for possible correlations and causations – shows the massive potential for open data to transform scientific research. The economic impact of this open data revolution will be similarly profound.  The annual global market for financial services data analytics is estimated to be worth over $20 billion.  According to a new McKinsey report, the market for health analytics could be even larger – as much as $300 billion a year in the United States alone.”

Quant aux gouvernements eux-mêmes, avec les perspectives de gouvernement ouvert, ils font face à des transformations considérables qui redessineront leurs façons de faire et leurs outils de travail, et qui exigeront le développement de nouvelles compétences chez les employés gouvernementaux.

Mes plus grandes craintes concernent les décideurs et employés bloqués dans la peur du changement. Quelles mesures de soutien devront être déployées afin que les changements attendus se réalisent dans les meilleures conditions possibles pour les personnes travaillant dans ces organisations? Le savoir, les pratiques et les façons de faire devront être largement partagés dans le but de favoriser l’amélioration continue d’expertise et des connaissances des gestionnaires gouvernementaux.

Quel type d’emplois seront créés? Comment fait-on pour identifier et former des leaders de gouvernement ouvert? Il n’existe pas un seul et unique ensemble de compétences pour les leaders de gouvernement ouvert. Toutefois, un gestionnaire devrait posséder des compétences essentielles. Au cours de la dernière année, j’ai rédigé plusieurs billets à ce sujet :

Compétences essentielles d’un leader de gouvernement ouvert: capacité de bâtir des consensus; capacité de résolution de problèmes; penseur / analyste des systèmes; qui s’y connaît en information; agent de changement; compréhension de la culture de l’innovation; capacité d’écoute; capacité de sensibilisation et mobilisation.


Bonjour Lyne,

Il existe plusieurs problèmes dans le changement. 1) Les gens ont à changer; 2)Les façons de faire doivent changer; 3) Les ressources doivent être affectées différemment. Ces trois problèmes me semblent les plus importants et ils doivent être traités par de la pédagogie.

On peut changer sous la contrainte ou apprendre à changer ou à faire comme si l’on a changé. On doit inventer de nouvelles façons de faire ou utiliser d’anciennes façons de faire mais autrement. Quant aux ressources, elles sont amenées à être utilisées différemment, ou pas aux mêmes endroits ou même à être utilisées alors qu’avant elles n’avaient aucune utilité ou bien elles restaient cachées.

Un exemple. La ville de Nice en France appartenait à l’Italie jusque vers les années 1860 puis fut donnée à la France avec l’accord de sa population. Mais derrière la ville se trouvaient des paysans qui avaient l’habitude de faire descendre leur production vers Nice ou vers Gênes. Selon que ces paysans étaient rattachés à la France ou restaient à l’Italie, tous les chemins de transport ont changé de même qu’une partie des produits fabriqués. Et il a fallu trouver des emplois pour les paysans qui, étant en France, ne pouvaient plus vendre leurs produits …

So, I agree with John, business champions will come and also Politicians. They’ll look at the landscape and they’ll say: here is my home! And the money will be there. But even these champions will have the need of  skilled practioners, skilled companies, … I think that an Op Gov don’t work like Old Gov. The organization of the administration must be different. Tasks, ‘how to do’ processes, may be different. Here there is the need for pedagogy, studies about ‘how to do’, how to design administration, relationships between administration and people, companies and others.

People, by themselves, can innovate but alos they have the need for pre-designed tools.

What is your opinion Lyne, John, Marc, Alberto?

Makes sense!

Andrea’s point makes a lot of sense though. The budgetary crisis is a real opportunity for public sector innovators. It’s a no brainer: if all is well, why change anything? The answer “because it could be even better” is logically correct, but does not always push people to action. For most of human history, innovation has been an activity of last resort, to be undertaken only when the old ways could not possibly be maintained.