Stacking Up the Benefits of Openness

Sep 10, 2014
Business concept: Folder With Padlock on digital background

Open government, open source, openness. These words are often used in talking about open data, but we sometimes forget that the root of all of this is an open community. Individuals working together to release government data and put it to use to help their neighbors and reach new personal goals.

This sense of community in the open data field shows up in many places. I see it when people volunteer at the National Day of Civic Hacking, crowdsource data integrity with MapGive, or mentor with Girls Who Code. And each day I see it on Open Data Stack Exchange, where people ask questions about open data issues, searches, or challenges, and strangers half a world away answer the question within an hour.

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We launched the Open Data Stack Exchange in 2013 as a way of helping to build community and open up the knowledge in our emergent field. What started slowly, soon took off with 3,375 participants today having provided 1,592 answers to 721 questions. Anyone can ask a question. These have ranged from data requests (looking for specific hard-to-find data) to technical questions on parsing or visualizing data. More importantly, anyone can answer a question, too. You’ll notice from the numbers that most questions have more than one answer, with the asker being able to choose the best answer and everyone being able to vote the questions and answers up and down. The forum is loosely moderated (I’ve served as one of the moderators since inception), but predominantly self-governed. Google trusts this method and forum so much that within a few minutes of answering a question, it will pop to the top of the Google search results for that topic.

What are people asking on the Open Data Stack Exchange? One question is seeking applications being developed with open data, one is looking for a database of open databases and another seeks data about the Ebola outbreak. Answers, edits, comments, suggestions…all are part of the conversation and documentation of our collective open data knowledge. This type of community-vetted, open forum helps to evolve and preserve our collective wisdom into the future. I encourage people who ask questions of to do so on Stack Exchange so that everyone can see the answer, and flag those for easy reference (OpenFDA does the same).

To help encourage you to ask questions, make comments, and join in answering questions, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) just completed negotiations with Stack Exchange to amend their terms for easier government use. There are more than 100 Stack Exchange forums, ranging from Stack Overflow for programming to English language and usage to user experience. In addition to Stack Exchange, GSA’s DigitalGov team has negotiated government-wide terms and services with more than 70 other digital media companies for you to use in connecting and collaborating with others.

Feel free to participate and contribute your knowledge and be part of the amazing, evolving open data community!