Government officials and information specialists from more than 50 countries wrapped up a week long conference in Washington this week to try to answer a simple question: How to unlock the value of government data to improve the lives citizens in developed as well as less developed nations.

The answer, it turns out, is a lot more complex.

That was abundantly evident by the wide range of ideas from the 162 speakers who shared their views on the subject – including Dr. Jim Yong Kim, in his first public speech as World Bank Group president, and Federal Chief Technology Officer Todd Park.

The event, hosted by the World Bank and, attracted 450 attendees to the World Bank Group’s headquarters in Washington and 4,000 more who watched the conference online.

The topic of open government data is drawing more and more attention as budget-constrained governments try to find new and more creative ways to empower the public to make more productive use of government data. The 2012 International Open Government Data Conference was the latest in ongoing international efforts to make government data more accessible and more useful to help improve the lives of citizens around the world.

That fact was brought into sharper focus when Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Professor James Hendler announced that the number of open government data sets available for public use in the IODGS Catalog has surpassed 1 million from 43 countries and international organizations.

It was also reflected in a variety of scientific, academic and governmental presentations made during the early part of the conference. evangelist Jeanne Holm (pictured) and World Bank Open Data Evangelist, Tariq Khokhar, managed to capture a rainbow in a bottle, distilling the highlights of 29 virtual presentations over three days into a single session called Best of the Lightning Talks.

Among the take-away ideas that impressed them, Holm highlighted:

  • How “Data is the tool, but not the goal,” said Katleen Janssen. “While open data is good, only a minority of people can really use it.”
  • The importance, stressed by Giovanni Carnaroli, of “developing open data infrastructure by selecting high-value data and then releasing it,” and “the shift from ownership of data to access to data.”
  • The example, discussed by the World Banks’s Tariq Khokhar, of how the World Bank Open Data Initiative was making development data, financial data, maps, projects, performance assessments available for public use.
  • RPI’s Hendler’s emphasis on how “data mashups let us create linked data,” which, together with proper metadata, “helps create better data” information.
  • The notion, expressed by Jim Harbour, that “metada is the roadmap,” how data access APIs are the vehicles,” and that “data products are the destinations” in turning data into intelligence, which in turn, drives innovation.
  • The idea put forth by Rair Rajwan, that visualization, as a tool, is less about a map as much as the workflow behind it.
  • What is important about data, as Eric Hochhalter put it, is understanding the stories that data tells, and that great visualizations help tell those stories.

However, attracting communities of interest around data sets and finding ways to extract value from them is the challenge remains a key challenge for many governments.

Todd Park, federal chief technology officer, speaking on a July 11 panel, pointed to the Health DataPalooza model he helped foster as CTO at the Department of Health and Human Services as an example of how governments can work with the private sector to get the ball rolling.

He described the virtuous cycle that comes from brainstorming ideas around tangible issues in need of a solution; creating a showcase for developers to show their solutions; having the data owners see what can be done with their own data, and how that “inspires a lot more innovation,” he said.

“It’s very important to understand, however that the value isn’t the apps,” Park said. “The apps are just the tip of the iceberg.” Park explained that it’s when a service layer emerges, providing information into the hands of doctors when they need it, for example, that the real value of exploiting data begins to take shape.

And perhaps of even greater value, he said, is the eventual impact of transparency when that layer matures. He cited a variety of statistics that confirmed how health care improved as real-time medical metrics became increasingly available.

The cost of acquiring and processing government data was once so massive, it was virtually unavailable, said Park.

“But if government makes it available at no charge, than the ‘I’ in return-on-investment becomes zero, and that changes the game,” said Park.

Not everyone would agree.

Many of the government’s data sets are not as accessible or as easy to use as the government agencies would like people to think, notes data scientist (and Breaking Gov contributor) Brand Niemann.

Governments need to be clear about “what is the real objective,” with pushing open government data into the public marketplace, said Luke Spikes, president and CEO of UK-based Spikes Cavell Analytics Inc. “Is it for the public good, or for generating jobs?”

That indeed is one of the challenges for government officials, including Holm who heads up
the General Services Administration’s effort in support of the government’s initiative. currently offers more than 450,000 data sets from 172 federal agencies, she said, and now has 13 different communities of interest looking for ways to better use the data.

Holm and Khokhar, however, in summarizing the conference’s work, expressed optimism about the consensus they and others see emerging in favor of open government data policies – not only among government leaders, but also non-profit activists, academics and for–profit technology companies.

That trend, they suggest, carries four benefits: It not only leads to improved government transparency and service delivery, but also to commercial opportunities and to helping governments improve use of their own data.