Sorry, open data: Americans just aren't that into you

A new survey finds limited public knowledge of government's open data efforts -- and equally underwhelming enthusiasm.

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Whether they know it or not, Americans are using government data. Mapping and weather data power applications used by a majority of smartphone users. But according to a Pew survey conducted in late 2014 and released this week, there is only a dim awareness of policies at the federal, state and local levels to open and release troves of government data for use by entrepreneurs, researchers, and government watchdogs.

So what do ordinary people know about open data? According to Pew, just 31 percent of respondents could identify any example of their local government's data policy. To go by the poll analysis and the selection of questions included in an appendix to the Pew report, it's not clear what Americans know about the federal open data policies launched by the Obama administration and championed by former CTO Todd Park -- but the answer seems to be, not much.

Almost half of Americans report using the Internet or mobile apps to engage with government, but only a small number of respondents say government is "very effective" at sharing data. "As open data and open government initiatives get underway, most Americans are still largely engaged in 'e-Gov 1.0' online activities, with far fewer attuned to 'Data-Gov 2.0' initiatives that involve agencies sharing data online for public use," according to the Pew analysis.

How effectively does the federal government share the data it collects with the general public?

Legend
Response Percent
Very effectively 5%
Somewhat effectively 39%
Not very effectively 39%
Not at all effectively 15%
No answer 1%

This isn't exactly a big surprise. The open data policies promulgated by the federal government are aimed more at developers than ordinary citizens. Users of government data sets need more than a passing familiarity with a fairly complex set of tools to extract, manipulate and visually represent the information.

For the minority of respondents who are most engaged with government data, meanwhile, there is a bifurcation of views that tracks with their levels of trust in government itself.

The Pew report tabs 17 percent of respondents as "ardent optimists," who see government data as a means to improving government performance and citizen engagement, and 20 percent as "committed cynics" who use government data at the same levels as their optimistic counterparts, but don't believe data policies will lead to better, more accountable government. Optimists report higher levels of trust in government and are more likely to lean toward the Democratic Party. Cynics report higher levels of government distrust and are more apt to identify as Republicans.

In the past 12 months, have you gone on the internet or used an app to access information or data provided by the federal government?

Legend
Response Percent
Yes 37%
No 61%
No answer 1%

The Obama administration pitches open data as fuel for new business ideas, and the public seems to agree, if mildly. Per the survey, half of respondents think that "the data the government provides to the general public helps businesses create new products and services" a lot or somewhat. Only 34 percent say it helps not much or not at all.

How much, if at all, do you think the data the government provides to the general public helps businesses create new products and services?

Legend
Response Percent
A Lot 9%
Somewhat 41%
Not much 27%
Not at all 7%
Don't know 15%
No answer 1%
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