Pew: People Like U.S. Open Data Initiatives, But Think Government Could Do More

Despite increasing numbers of people seeking information from government sources, a Pew survey reveals that people are skeptical about the usefulness of open data programs.

Big data is everywhere, with the U.S. government amassing perhaps the biggest trove of data. As the government collects more data, it has started to engage in open data and open government programs to share that data with citizens. However, according to a new Pew Research report (in association with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation), users don’t believe they’re doing a very good job.

Open government and open data programs can provide some very useful information to the public. When information on government activity is not forthcoming, some take it into their own hands to expose this data, as Edward Snowden did with NSA data. This can lead to serious distrust of government, and secrecy makes it harder for journalists to keep officials honest.

The Pew report examines how citizens are using publicly available information, and their opinions on the effectiveness of these programs.

76 percent of survey participants were searching out information on their local, state and federal governments. However they were generally performing routine functions: searching for park hours, paying for hunting licenses, or learning about government benefits and services.

Very few survey participants were using the open data initiatives to track what their governments were doing. Only 17 percent used government sources to track the performance of healthcare providers or hospitals, and only seven percent used these sources to find out about contracts between the government and outside firms.

Survey participants had mixed feelings about the good that greater transparency could bring. 56 percent believe these initiatives would allow journalists to cover government activities more thoroughly, and 53 percent believe would become more accountable to the public.

Jon Sotsky, Knight Foundation director for strategy and assessment, discussed the study:

While most Americans use the Internet to intermittently access government information or services, few have considered how increasing the availability and utility of government data could impact their lives. The split feelings about whether openly publishing more government data even has the potential to improve government accountability primarily reflects existing low levels of trust in government, which is ironic because open data initiatives largely aim to increase this trust.

Less than half of those surveyed believed these initiatives would improve the quality of government services, or that they would allow citizens to have greater impact on government. 53 percent believed that these plans wouldn’t result in better decisions by officials.

The 23 percent of survey participants who trusted the government were much more likely to believe that these projects would lead to positive outcomes.

When it comes to the kind of data the government shares online, most participants were comfortable with a wide variety of information being shared. 82 percent were comfortable with restaurant health and safety data, 62 percent are okay with individual criminal records, and 60 percent would accept data about individual teachers and schools.

Overall, the study concludes that convincing people to use these open data initiatives could engender greater trust in the government. However, with many users remaining skeptical about the projects, skepticism in government could remain high overall.

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