Government agencies collect, analyze and disseminate a large volume of data. While much attention has been paid in the past few years to how they collect and analyze data, less attention has been paid to how they disseminate and share (non-sensitive) data with the public.

With the push for open data and since the launch of Data.gov in 2009, government data has become more available and in new ways, while continuing to ensure privacy and security. But for many agencies, methods for publishing data for public consumption haven’t changed very much. Often they’re still using antiquated techniques and principles (like publishing data as PDFs or links to Excel files of large data sets). This is an increasingly unsatisfactory situation as the public is demanding more mobility, simplicity and clarity.

My team and I have been working with a number of agencies whose data publication approaches are failing to meet their needs. While more and more data is being published through application programming interfaces (APIs), which can be useful for researchers, companies and others who already understand the data, APIs are not so user-friendly for individuals who lack that specialized background.

Just why are agencies using unsatisfactory formats to share data? In most cases, it’s because those of us who live in the data science field think like data scientists—we publish out the data in much the same way we collect it, assuming its recipients will understand how to read and use it. We should instead take a page from user-centric design and think first about users and what they want to do with the data.

The success of data dissemination is proportional to the adoption of published data by the public. Recognizing this, here are three basic principles that can serve as a guideline for agencies:

  1. User experience. Start with how users want to interact with the data rather than how the data is collected. Taking this mindset, government can move beyond static data publication to dynamic data interaction. Data dissemination approaches must understand Section 508—the portion of the Americans with Disabilities Act that requires accessible web design—and take into consideration the broadest spectrum of potential users. With user experience front of mind, agencies can make their data more understandable and usable.  
  2. Interactive analytics. Delivering a variety of ways to visualize and interact with data is key. Technology is no longer a barrier to robust visualization capabilities. Agencies can significantly increase awareness of and engagement with their missions through publication of data stories. The more interactive the visualization, the greater the engagement.
  3. Mobility. Data dissemination must acknowledge that today’s users want to access data on their mobile devices. Agencies should leverage their geospatially aware data in a manner that integrates with location-aware functionality inherent within mobile devices. In addition, approaches to data dissemination should also take into consideration disconnected use.

What do you think are the key success factors for improving data dissemination and engagement with agency data assets? I look forward to hearing your thoughts. 

About this author

Picture of Sumit Shah

Sumit Shah

Director, Consulting Services

Sumit serves as the chief data scientist in CGI Federal’s Emerging Technology Practice. He leads a team of data engineers and data scientists who are defining and driving technical direction of prospective business opportunities, and work with business stakeholders and client executives to develop overall ...

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