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This post was written by Chris Bernard, the research and editorial director for Idealware, a nonprofit that creates impartial research and written resources to help other nonprofits make smart decisions about software.
We talk a lot about data at Idealware, and we're not alone — it's a nonprofit buzzword that's showing no sign of fading. More and more organizations are embracing the idea that collecting and measuring data and acting on what they learn from it can improve their work and better their services.
But surprisingly few nonprofits are talking about open data.
That conversation is happening outside the nonprofit sector, however, and even made the news lately as the British government launched an effort to open tremendous amounts of data to the public — including datasets about everything from property records to water levels — in the hope that sharing the information will facilitate its use in a number of ways.
For example, a smartphone app might use real-time data to alert drivers to empty parking spaces in a town lot, or provide traffic and transit updates to commuters. And last week, the British Environment Agency announced it would share real-time water-level measurements taken every 15 minutes with apps that will use them to warn residents to prepare for floods caused by rising rivers.
Another example includes sharing the location of emergency response equipment such as ambulances and defibrillators — information currently spread across different federal and local agencies — to improve emergency response times.
The government is even planning to appoint a chief data officer to manage the effort, earning praise from the Open Data Institute as the most advanced government in the field of open data. But other countries have mounted similar efforts.
According to the Open Data Institute, open data saved Canada $3.2 billion in charity tax fraud, and, in a more pedestrian example, a woman in Denmark used government datasets to build a website showing all the public toilets across the country.
Here in the U.S., local governments are using open data to improve their services. Five years ago, the city of Portland, Oregon followed the precedent set by San Francisco and Chicago when it opened its data to developers.
To facilitate the use of that data, the city hosted a contest to motivate the development community to make use of more than 100 types of datasets it had released — everything from aerial photographs and business licenses to parking meter information, liquor license applications, and street-sweeping routes. (You can see some of the apps generated by the contest at civicapps.org.)
Businesses have also begun to move toward using open data, as have scientists. According to London's Independent newspaper, recent research suggests that open data could save more than $200 million in prescription costs by identifying doctors who prescribe branded drugs when cheaper generic medicines are available.
The benefits seem legion, but nonprofits are lagging behind the trend. A Google search of "nonprofit open data" turns up a number of strong pleas advocating for a wider adoption of open data practices in the sector, but fewer actual examples of organizations opening their data to the public.
In an effort to start the conversation, we wrote an article that provides a simple overview of what open data is, what it means for nonprofits, and the benefits and risks of opening data to a wider audience. It's neither in-depth nor comprehensive, but it's a start. You can read it for free at on our website. More examples and ideas about open data are also coming soon from TechSoup.
Now we're asking you to join the conversation. Do you know good examples of nonprofits using open data or sharing their data with the public? Have you done it yourself? What were your results?
Whether you want to advocate for open data or argue against it, let us know what you think either in the comments, on the Idealware Facebook page, or on Twitter (@idealware) using the hashtag #npopendata.
Image 1: Rocketclips, Inc. / Shutterstock
Image 2: Markus Gebauer / Shutterstock
Image 3: CivicApps
Image 4: Rido / Shutterstock
Idealware is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides thoroughly researched, impartial, and accessible resources about technology to help nonprofits make smart decisions.
This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International License.
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