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How To Select Open Data Portal Software For Your Municipality

With many open data portal software players in the market, it can be difficult to know what to look for. We’re here to help.


Transparency has been one of the most popular themes in local government over the last several years. Citizens are increasingly uncertain about government on the federal, state, and municipal levels, and have voiced those concerns louder than any others. Many believe that increased municipal transparency will lead to improved levels of citizen trust.

Because people now have near-constant internet access, thanks to smartphones and other advances in technology, some local governments have seen an opportunity for both transparency and increased citizen interaction. To do this, some municipalities have turned to open data portal software like Socrata, Junar, and OpenGov.

The domino effect has led other municipalities to jump on board, and open data portal software is now seen on many municipal websites. If you’re interested in purchasing this kind of software, you should first understand what it is you’re buying and what you need to keep in mind when comparing various software vendors.

What is open data portal software?

Open data portal software links to your municipal website in order for citizens to view your performance and have access to any sort of data or metrics being tracked by the city. Most of this kind of software connects to different city systems and will allow citizens to download raw numbers, basic charts, and other information for further examination or study. Because of this, it’s often referred to as “data dumping.” This may be helpful for business owners who want to get more information about the municipal economy, for citizens to see how their tax money is being spent and what kind of results it’s getting for them, or for members of the press who may be writing data-driven reports or articles.

6 Things To Keep In Mind When Selecting Open Data Portal Software

1. Time

You’ll want to consider the time it will take your municipality to get started with open data portal software. Consider the project plan: will this deployment take weeks, months, or even years to complete? Depending on how much data is being placed online and how big the municipality is, these projects can be massive and could take 9-12 months easily. Not only is that a lot of staff time, but what happens if a project gets delayed? Be sure to ask the vendors you’re considering how long a deployment typically takes and what kinds of obstacles or challenges they’ve faced with other deployments. This will help you go into your project prepared.

2. Maintenance

What does the maintenance over time for this kind of software require? You should consider that a lot of open data portals now may look trendy now, but in 18 months, they’ll be dated. Press the vendor to find out how this will be handled. Additionally, you’ll want to find out if you can you make the changes to the design in-house or if you’d have to contact your provider to make the changes for you.

3. Cost

It seems obvious to say that you should consider the pricing—but don’t forget to look at the pricing model. Some models are monthly, some are yearly, some are flat fees, and others may charge you per-API or per-data set. Keep an eye out for additional hosting costs, update costs, and other hidden fees. Just because you see a demo with a lot of bells and whistles doesn’t mean that’s what you’re going to get if you purchase the software. The starting price may be reasonable, but the add-ons could put the software out of your reach.

4. API

Open data portal software often needs an application program interface (API) to connect to the city’s systems that track finances, parking tickets, etc. Will the vendor give you access to their API, or do they make you pay for the configuration? Additionally, you’ll want to confirm who’s going to write the programs (like the SQL queries). Is this easy enough for an end user to do, or will you need to get your IT team involved? All of these questions need to be discussed.

5. Support

What kind of support are you going to get from this software provider? You’ll want to determine whether the people you’re going to be working with at a particular software vendor are subject matter experts. In other words, does the vendor have your best interest in mind, or are they just trying to sell you on things you don’t really need?

6. Effectiveness

The team charged with selecting this software needs to ask,“If we were citizens, what would we want to see?” Remember that anyone on a municipal team likely sees this data and information on a regular (or even daily) basis, and they’re passionate about it. But this isn’t necessarily the case with your citizens. Is publishing 700 data sets necessary? The answer is almost certainly no, but some municipalities do it anyhow. (What’s more is this kind of unnecessary data dumping could set you back $15,000 - $30,000 a month.) Case in point, you need to determine what kind of data you should even be publishing online.

Alternatives To Open Data Portal Software

All of this information begs a very simple question—is “data dumping” actually effective, or should you instead highlight your strategic priorities? In our opinion, it is better to explain to citizens why you’re sharing specific information and then give them what they need to digest that information. For example, if you’re tracking the number of construction permits because you’re trying to track growth in your city, it’s not necessary (or even remotely helpful) to give citizens a data set that has every single building permit ever issued and who they were issued to. This forces them to manipulate the data and spend time determining how many, let’s say, were issued in the last month. If you provide them that information in a more organized fashion—like a chart—they are able to clearly see that you’ve issued 112 permits in the month of October.

In the end, if you’re leaving people to manipulate large data sets and make their own assumptions about what the data means, they may not come to the right conclusions—which doesn’t lend to transparency whatsoever. Not only does providing strategic information allow you to tell the correct story, but it also saves your citizens time and energy.

How To Select Open Data Portal Software For Your Municipality