FOCAS Conference Catalyzes Landmark Open Data Institute in the US

October 29, 2013  • Rachel Pohl, Guest Blogger

This post originally appeared on the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program’s website.

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 Barack Obama wrote in a Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, “Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in 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 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 a successful presentation by the Open Data Institute (ODI) 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 nonprofit that seeks to catalyze the evolution of an 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 large global network already advocating for open data, acting as an evangelist and catalyst in America and leveraging a network effect towards an all-encompassing buy-in.

How will this new organization do this? ODI USA aims to increase transparency among government agencies, businesses, and nonprofits by helping these organizations overcome barriers that prevent them from sharing their data. ODI will host convenings and create open source projects. President of ODI USA, open data pioneer and FOCAS 2013 participant Waldo Jaquith noted, “The US 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 members are connected and more organizations have the capacity to participate.”

ODI USA will consist of a small board, including: Aneesh Chopra, former US 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 with a specific and rather immediate outcome of our FOCAS 2013 meeting, which we expect to result in a promising development for governments, communities, and citizens across the country.