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Study provides insight, advice on open govt. initiatives

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  1. Freedom of Information
Online access to government data is not meeting the needs or expectations of the general public, a survey conducted by…

Online access to government data is not meeting the needs or expectations of the general public, a survey conducted by data aggregator Socrata found. The results of the survey, which polled members of the public, government agency employees and open data developers, were published Dec. 15.

The survey collected data from a national swath of the American public, government employees from federal, state and local levels, and data developers who publish the released information on their own sites. The survey does not offer conclusions regarding the state of specific agencies or governments, but the authors see the survey as a tool for the government to use towards creating a better system.

Socrata initiated the survey to find out the state of the open government movement to determine the amount of public participation and government compliance, and the public perception of the movement. The study found that there is a public mandate that government data should be open and available online, and that government employees generally agree.

Saf Rabah, who oversaw the project and managed the different phases of the survey, said that Socrata conducted the survey to give a voice to the major transparency stakeholders including: the public, those in charge of the information (government employees) and those who publish that information (online data developers). Socrata wanted to be able to share with government agencies what information is most needed and most valued by constituents, Rabah said.

The survey asked how the public preferred to access the information and what types of information they most preferred to access, including public safety data, financial information, census and legislative information.

The study found that there is an overwhelming belief that open records should be available online, with 92.6% of government employees endorsing this idea. The study also found that the general public vastly prefers online access to records and the option of browsing online. However, the survey found that only 23.8% of governments have launched a data site.

Sites generally upload content for citizens to download, but that's not how they want it, Rabah said. The study suggests that the general public do not want to simply download files. Sixty-three percent of respondents said they would prefer to be able to browse and interact with the information online. Only 16% preferred to download information.

Government employees expressed a need for better technology to help extract information and then export it for consumption. The most important need that data developers expressed was to have the relevant data.

The survey's authors hope that government agencies use the survey to compare themselves to other agencies and see how they compare in terms of accessibility and openness, Rabah said. They also hope the study will provide insight as to how openness and transparency can be better achieved by seeing what the public wants and in what ways that information can best be transmitted.

Socrata developed the survey in partnership with open government advocates Sunlight Foundation, Personal Democracy Forum, GovLoop, Code for America and David Eaves.