Originally posted at CA Fwd.
By Mark Orcutt.

Take a moment out of your day and Google “Francis Bacon.” If you are able to see past his impeccable fashion sense (I’ve never been able to pull off the sixteenth century ruff, myself), you will uncover his most famous quotation: “knowledge is power”.

As historically guarded and dusty datasets become increasingly available, an effort to shift power in the public’s favor and improve democratic governance is being spearheaded by watchdog groups, forward thinking elected officials, and civic hackers alike.

An international collection of these data pioneers converged on the UC Berkeley campus recently for a conference hosted by The Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and UCB’s Institute of Governmental Studies to discuss the good, the bad, and the future of open data.

While there was contagious optimism in the room surrounding the use of public data to promote accountability and create a more responsive democracy, it is imperative to remember that “data is not magic”, said Matt Scharpnick Chief Strategy Officer at Elefint Designs.

In order for the data to be useful, it must make the transformation from “information to insight” and engage the public. Only after this transformation, can data effectively put power in the public’s hands.

Achieving such a transformation is not an easy task when you are faced with government information that is relatively manageable in size, but often overwhelmingly complex.

For example, Open Oakland, a group that describes themselves as “coders, community advocates, and city officials” has effectively engaged the public with the City of Oakland’s budget.

The key to engaging the public with such complicated information, according to Steve Spiker, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Open Oakland, is to take a seemingly “meaningless chunk of data and tell a story.” Only then is it possible to “build engaging tools to help people connect with issues.”

There are many other examples of successful applications of liberated data including the great work done by Granicus and Appallicious in partnership with the City of San Francisco, and also the City of Palo Alto’s groundbreaking Open Data Platform, which CA Fwd highlighted in February. Not to mention, the interactive online tools developed by Sunlight Foundation and MapLight that make uncovering information about the way your elected official votes and fundraises easier than ever.

By merging relevant information with engaging context and visuals, these open data entrepreneurs have effectively created an opportunity for unprecedented government transparency.

Data alone may not be magic, but there is no doubting its power to improve governance. If artfully harnessed, the potential for open data to empower the public and increase accountability is certainly something Francis Bacon would approve.