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Four steps to launching an open data project

Private sector CIOs can learn from their public sector counterparts when it comes to open data. Veteran public sector CIO Bill Oates is proof.

As enterprises become more data-centric, CIOs are mulling over how to make data available to employees -- safely and securely. So why not take a page from an organization that's in the throes of it: The Commonwealth of Massachusetts. At a recent panel discussion hosted by the Mass Technology Leadership Council, Bill Oates, CIO for the Commonwealth, discussed the state's initiative to open up data to its more than six million constituents.

Oates, former CIO for the City of Boston and, before that, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., acknowledged this is not an easy talk with data trapped in silos, years of unkempt master data management practices and aging legacy systems. And that's just infrastructure. Like its private sector counterparts, Massachusetts struggles with questions about data ownership and the lack of or competing reporting standards, both of which can make data gathering difficult and prevent a horizontal view of the organization.

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The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), for example, uses crash data to determine where to invest in intersection improvements. "Every jurisdiction is supposed to report that data in a standardized way," said panelist Rachel Bain, assistant secretary for performance management and innovation at MassDOT. But, an officer reporting to a crash scene may forgo GPS coordinates for a short-hand description like, "It's the corner with the Dunkin' Donuts," she said.

But for all the uphill battles, Oates and his fellow panelists were also quick to list open data's benefits, first and foremost transparency, which is not only fundamental to self-government but can also help drive innovation. Putting valuable data in front of "civic hackers" means more hands to dig through the piles and more brains to generate ideas and develop applications. For proof, he pointed to MassDOT, which has already seen open data success with real-time bus location apps. Oates, himself, experienced the value of making open data a front-and-center initiative during his years serving the City of Boston, which garnered national attention. "It became part of our identity," he said.

Now, he's hoping to help inspire that same kind of transformation for a $36 billion organization with 80,000-plus employees. And that means forming partnerships internally and externally, having the right policies and "developing the right roles in your organization so you stay focused on these things," Oates said.

Four-step program for open data

Here are four more tips from the panel for CIOs and IT professionals on how to lead an open data initiative:

  1. Go on a data listening tour. Oates recalled a time the Commonwealth released a bunch of data sets that, quite simply, flopped. "No one looked at it," he said. That's one of the reasons he and his fellow panelists now take time to reach out to the community. They want to find out what kind of data is in demand. Or, better yet, what kinds of questions or problems constituents are hoping to solve. "We're here to take guidance," Oates said. Near the end of the event, panel moderator Nick Grossman, visiting scholar at the MIT Center for Civic Media, asked audience members to shout out data they wished they could get their hands on today -- "open parking spaces;" "how packed are beaches and parks;" "quality of health care providers." Tony Parham, the state's government innovation officer, was on site taking notes.
  2. Step up to the plate and be willing to deal with the public. You've heard it before: IT folks can no longer take cover in the data center. With open data projects, they must sometimes act as the face of the business. Curt Savoie, chief data scientist for the City of Boston, said that when constituents are referred to him or reach out to him on social media platforms, he makes a point of responding -- even if he doesn't have all of the answers. "They're not expecting that from a government entity," he said. "That gets people excited." Savoie doesn't have a master data list (something he's still trying to sell to the powers that be), but he's willing to poke around the data and see what he can find.
  3. Let the public teach you about the data. Savoie has learned the open data partnership works both ways. When he published a set of crime data to the city's data site, he didn't really know what he was looking at. "I'm not an expert at that," he said. Over time, people approached him and pointed out flaws -- certain data points were missing or muddled. With the help of subject-matter experts and advocacy groups, Savoie rebuilt and republished the entire data set. "Now the data is cleaner and more useful," he said. And, he's keeping the door open for even more suggestions. "The first step is putting the data out there and being responsive to feedback," he said.
  4. Avoid the all talk, no action trap. Oates encourages employees to push through the talk and start taking action, especially early on. "The only way to overcome inertia is to push through with results," he said. One way to avoid the rut: carve up big projects into smaller ones, he said. Put another way, CIOs should think in terms of "half, not half-assed," said MIT's Grossman, borrowing from the book Getting Real: The Smarter, Faster, Easier Way to Build a Successful Web Application. For Oates, continuously moving forward and proving project value early is top of mind, especially in an organization where leadership changes happen regularly. "My hope is to build [enough] momentum so no one wants to get in the way of it," he said.

Welcome to The Data Mill, a weekly column devoted to all things data. Heard something newsy (or gossipy)? Email me or find me on Twitter at @TT_Nicole.

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How are you opening up corporate data?