We often hear politicians say they’d like to bring new levels of transparency and accountability to government. Over the past decade, this sentiment has proliferated across world governments, giving citizens unprecedented access to once-privileged information, and becoming the focus of research for one of SUNY Cobleskill’s faculty members.
As you might imagine, governments possess incredible quantities of data which they are charged with making available to the public through dedicated platforms. In doing so, governments put forth initiatives to open up data in varying domains to which they believe citizens should have access.
“They wanted to see what citizens would do with the information and what innovations might come about because of this access. But, in the intervening years, there’s been a lack of understanding about who is using the data, for what purpose are they using it, and how are they interacting with it,” says Dr. Grace Begany, Associate Professor of Information Technology at SUNY Cobleskill.
Dr. Begany is part of a team of researchers, including professors from the University at Albany, figuring out how governments can best engage people with their data. Their findings provide important insight to government managers in tailoring new educational initiatives to help citizen users access the data and engage with it on a deeper level.
The team has authored three studies on open government data, first looking at the evolution of the movement toward transparency, then looking at how citizens used the platforms and the newly available datasets.
“The value of the data can only be unlocked if people can properly access and use it. Yelp, for example, pulls in some open government data to spur economic activity. Data can be used for public health purposes, to educate people about vaccines, for instance. This demonstrates the value of this data, but the bottom line is that it’s not being used enough. We need to improve presentation and engagement to unlock this data’s value to a wider audience,” says Dr. Begany.
The research helped to illuminate that users engaged with datasets at different and distinct levels, ranging from the casual to more in-depth. The in-depth users took data and created charts, graphs, maps, and other representations of the data for their own professional purposes. The key for government managers, Dr, Begany says, is to present data in different levels of complexity and encourage users to progress through these levels.
Dr. Begany notes that she and her team made some surprising discoveries throughout their research. Using a New York State Department of Health platform on open data as their focus of study, the team hypothesized that females would be more active than men, based on findings from prior research. Prior research suggested that females traditionally taking a leading role in family caregiving, thus seeking information in this area. Inversely, the study found that males were more apt to engage with open health data. Female users who did engage were found to be more likely to return to the data multiple times, particularly using a mobile smartphone device.
This research is now being applied in Dr. Begany’s Information Technology classes at SUNY Cobleskill. Students are working with open government data and using IT tools to analyze and visualize this data.
Concurrently, Dr. Begany is focusing on a stream of research dealing with the “digital divide” and bridging internet access to areas of the globe that lack connectivity as we know it.