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Survey: Many Americans Doubt Government Open Data Efforts

Forget data sets, people want to know about library hours and trash pickup details.

Pew Research Center

Sorry, government data geeks, most Americans don’t share your enthusiasm for APIs or mining obscure government data sets.

Just 5 percent of Americans say that federal or state governments are very effectively sharing the data they’ve collected, according to a new survey released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center.

The research shows that a little more than half of Americans (more Democrats than Republicans) think that access to government data could help journalists and others keep elected officials and bureaucrats more accountable, but they have doubts that government officials are any good at actually sharing that information.

While “government does touch people online, as evidenced by high levels of use of the Internet for routine information applications,” the report finds, “most Americans have yet to delve too deeply into government data and its possibilities to closely monitor government performance.”

In some ways, the survey highlights what might seem obvious: Most Americans want to know about things that impact their daily lives, like when curbside leaf pickup is happening or what time the park closes. They’re not quite as interested in delving into how much the county paid for replacement printer cartridges last year.

Pew Open Data Survey Usage

Just 7 percent of survey respondents had used government data to check on contracts with suppliers while 38 percent had checked out sites with public data on local weather or pollution levels or road conditions, according to Pew researchers.

Obama administration officials have repeatedly tried to release more data to the public with mixed results.

The White House’s new real-time dashboard for who’s visiting federal websites also shows this. Currently, the most popular pages are the IRS’s “Where’s my refund?” page and the National Weather Service homepage.

Commerce Department officials have touted their open data initiatives as a way of helping U.S. companies find new ways of monetizing the data in some way. There’s no doubt some government data — most notably the National Weather Service’s forecasts — have been widely adopted by developers and used extensively for a variety of purposes.

Less obvious data sets — Forecasting Gulf of Mexico Shrimp Harvests, anyone? — aren’t being used quite as much.

Americans also expressed concerns about what sort of information the government should release.

Pew Open Data Survey Fears

More than 80 percent of people were okay with local officials releasing information about restaurant health inspections. Fewer survey recipients were comfortable with details about performance results of local teachers being released or — eek! — information about personal mortgages.

Pew researchers surveyed 3,212 adults in its American Trends Panel about government data last winter. The margin of error on the survey is plus or minus 2 percentage points.

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