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How businesses get value from open records

Data can leave you feeling like you're under water, but can be beneficial for business


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Data is ever growing. The current rate is exponential. In fact, 90 percent of the world's existing data was created within the last two years. 

As recently as 1990, if you needed to know what year Colorado became a state, you'd probably have to open and read an encyclopedia to get an answer.

Today, Google, Siri, Alexa or any number of other search tools will produce the same accurate response in 0.76 seconds or less. No paper cuts, no lugging around 20-pound book sets.

Every second, more than 40,000 searches are sent through Google from all over the world.

People are constantly requesting information, interaction and connection, all of which is provided by searching for and accessing data online. Data is spread far and wide throughout the web, in a multitude of forms. But it isn't always easy to find precisely what you're on the hunt for – and sometimes, Google isn't the way to go.

The Colorado legislature is presently debating proposed changes to the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) and the role government should play in releasing documents and data in usable digital formats.

As a water data collection specialist, I have spent years behind a keyboard, researching public data and how it's accessed on the web. In my experience, there are three myths when it comes to finding and using public or government data.

That it is:

  1. Easy to find
  2. Free
  3. Available in useable formats

About three years ago, Ponderosa Advisors began developing a tool called Water Sage, which helps individuals better understand water uses and rights.

In Colorado alone, Water Sage integrates water rights, well and land data for nearly 2.5 million parcels, more than 160,000 water rights, and data for nearly 425,000 water wells and structures. It is a comprehensive land parcel and water database that could not have been built without access to quality public data.

In many instances, public data is provided in new and easy-to-use formats, like shapefiles, KML (Google Earth) or csv (comma-separated values), making it easier to use or incorporate into value-add software programs.

However, too often public data sets with real world applications are either completely inaccessible or in formats the require manual processing.

For example, some counties maintain land parcel data in paper format, requiring individual trips to county courthouses, as well as the expense of converting the data into a digital format. The amount of work required to use data maintained in this manner makes it inaccessible for most.

One interesting example of innovative and active uses for public data come in the form of the Go Code Colorado competition.

This February marked the fourth kickoff of Go Code Colorado, and with it, state officials spotlighted the state's open data and its potential value for businesses. Led by the office of Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams, the competition, founded in 2014, brings teams of entrepreneurs together to create tech startups and apps that assist locals statewide.

Behind-the-scenes, the objective of Go Code is to encourage agencies to publish data to their open data platform – Colorado Information Marketplace – and raise awareness of the assets, highlighting the potential innovations to stem from the data. It also encourages the public to provide feedback on ways the state can improve the quality of its open data.

The trouble is, while data may be public, it is by no means consistently easy to find, free or easy to process.

Recent witness testimony on Colorado Senate Bill 40, which would amend our current CORA laws, helped put this challenge into perspective and shed some light on the unintended consequences of completely unfettered data, especially when it comes to our water.

In particular, when Doug Kemper, the executive director of Colorado Water Congress voiced his concerns about protecting our water infrastructure, it naturally got my attention. We're in the water data business and agree costs, privacy and sensitive material are all legitimate concerns and should be part of the debate; but like many things, we have to weight the pros and cons, and it seems like everyone has an opinion to share.

In the end, meaningful analytics from public sources are only as good as the data you put in.

The better (and more complete) the data, the better the results will be. Colorado is actually a leader among other states in publishing public data.

But it has an opportunity to be a national model.

Accessible and easy-to-use data can revolutionize the way Colorado engages with and solves its most critical issues. There will always be risks associated with creating easier-to-access information, we just have to decide if the benefits outweigh the risks.

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