Open Government Data that Changed the World

I want to make the case that open government data has value not just for geeks, but has the power to change lives in significant ways. I spend a lot of time convincing government managers and staffers that open governemnt data is a good thing, but sometimes we get caught up in the technical details. It’s easy to say that legislative data is an important component of maintaining an educated public, or that open and reusable bits are important for the media to be able to make compelling cases, but it’s all very abstract. So I asked my Open House Project friends: what open government data has changed the world?

Here’s what I got:

Weather data from the NOAA plays an important role in the agricultural sector (hat tip: Clay Shirky, David Weller) and, for that matter, has a lot to do with the weather reports we all use to plan our daily lives. (I tried to get some info on this from NOAA but they ignored my email, ah well.)

Information on publicly traded companies reported to the SEC plays a vital role in the public’s ability to trade fairly. The fact that the SEC continues to break ground on even more comprehensive data requirements for reporting signals that the public availability of these files is extraordinarily important. (Hat tip to Clay for the pointer, and to Carl Malamud for spearheading getting these files originally online in the first place.) Data from other agencies like BLS and USDA affect the trading of other commodities. (Hat tip: Philip Kromer)

The social security death index has been a tool for genealogy research (hat tip: Tom Bruce).

NASA’s photos of Earth from space are part of the bedrock of inspiration of the country. Can you imagine how different the world might be if NASA kept the photos to itself? The Library of Congress publishes digital versions of historical artifacts, like the founding documents — this too is a crical part of inspiring Americans to strive for an ideal. (Hat tip: Clay.)

Geospacial data from the USGS and the Census bureau have made mapping applications like Google Maps and in-car GPS devices like TomTom possible or at least cheaper to make.  (Hat tip: Philip Kromer. Francis Irving notes that the UK is a counterexample. OK.)

Census statistics, epidemiology data, and many state-funded survey projects have played crucial roles in public health and economic research. No doubt CDC data has saved lives, though I don’t know any specifics (hat tip: many).

If you have other examples, or can help me flesh out these examples, please send something my way. To reiterate: I’m looking for open data that changed lives — please tell me what the data is and how it changed lives.

4 thoughts on “Open Government Data that Changed the World”

  1. I don’t know how anyone could not be changed by Hans Rosling’s TED talk (now several years old).

    Let’s assume he’s continued down his “make data visible” path. I’d guess dozens (at least) of students professors, policy makers, in addition to people like me (and the 121 people compelled to leave comments on the TED page) who’ve seen it and sent it to dozens more have been similarly changed. Not sure how to do the aggregate ROI, but it’s surely there – in better understanding, better policy and investment choices, increased demand for data (and better presentation of existing data), etc.


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