Aspen Institute FOCAS Conference Catalyzes Landmark Open Data Institute in the U.S.

October 29, 2013  • Rachel Pohl

For years, politicians and practitioners alike have recognized the value of open data and praised its potential to revolutionize and transform governments, corporations, and individuals. Indeed, on his first full day in office, President Obama wrote, “Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government” in a Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government. However, open data’s true impact is still unclear, and the question remains: how do we turn this enthusiasm for open data into something useful?

The Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program’s 16th annual Forum on Communications and Society (FOCAS) titled “Beyond the Tools: Connecting Citizens and their Government,” gathered some of the top thinkers, makers, and doers in the open government space with the goal of advancing the open data movement in the United States. One of the major goals of the convening was how to encourage institutions, government, and citizens to join and enhance the open data movement.

Today, we are one step closer to harnessing the enormous potential of the open data movement. Following the successful Open Data Institute (ODI) presentation and deliberations at FOCAS 2013, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation awarded a $250,000 grant to a group of practitioners and transparency advocates to test an ODI model in the United States. The model emulates the UK-based ODI non-profit that seeks to catalyze the evolution of open data culture globally, creating economic, environmental, and social value.  Founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Sir Nigel Shadbolt (a FOCAS participant), ODI has built capacity around the open data movement, offering open data standards, events, and certification programs to help open data publishers make their data more useful.

Acting as the flag bearer for open data, ODI USA will amplify the work already being done in the open data space by the Sunlight Foundation, Open Knowledge Foundation, and Code for America. ODI USA aims to join a big global network and push towards open data, acting as an evangelist and catalyst for open data in America and leveraging a network effect towards an all-encompassing buy-in.

How will it do this? ODI USA will aim to increase transparency among government agencies, businesses and nonprofits by helping these organizations overcome barriers that prevent them from sharing their data. It will host convenings and create open source projects. Waldo Jaquith, President of ODI USA, Open Data Pioneer and FOCAS 2013 participant noted, “The U.S. has a fast-growing open data community. What the institute’s model can do is to further create a culture of open data, ensuring that membersare connected and more organizations have the capacity to participate.” ODI USA will consist of a small board: including Aneesh Chopra, former U.S. Chief Technology Officer, Daniel X. O’Neil, Executive Director of the Chicago Smart Collaborative, and Max Ogden, Code for America alumnus and open data developer.

With the FOCAS convening and others activities, the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program aims for significant impact and change. Here we have a specific and rather immediate outcome of our FOCAS 2013 meeting, resulting in such a promising development for governments, communities and citizens across the country.