An open data brokerage

An ‘open data broker,’ as recently posited by Chris Whong, is a “data journalist, data scientist, civic hacker, coder, mapper or some other middleman” that can take raw, open data and transform it into a product that the public can understand.

Yes, we need an open data broker, but perhaps they are more urgently needed to connect civic hackers to priority civic needs, rather than to the public.

When there is a clear need, civic hackers have effectively acted as open data brokers. For example, when it snows a lot, the city clearly needs help spreading information about snow removal and allocating volunteers to dig out elderly neighbors. And hence, civic hackers create snowmaps in DC, a  snowplow tracker in Chicago, and Snowstats in Boston.

But what happens when the data is accessible, but the reasons to use it are not clear? Those who have personal experience or connections to data providers may find the right questions to ask, but everyone else is left in the dark.

There have been far fewer applications that build on datasets related to building permits than snow removal, despite their disproportionate prevalence on open data portals. Maybe these data sets are not as useful, but then again land use files some of the most commonly viewed datasets across data portals.

Organizations that aim to broker between civic hackers and civic administrators, to create an ecosystem for open data innovation are few and far between. Perhaps this is why the idea was not included in the civic tech industry taxonomy published by Tom Steinberg, director of UK-based mySociety, and why it might also need revision.

The open data broker is a necessary component, but whom they are brokering between perhaps needs revisiting.