Why Aren’t More People Excited About Government Data Stories?

Government data as a platform for innovation is something I find exciting. Unfortunately, every time we write about it at ReadWriteWeb, very few people read our articles. Consumer data from private companies, be it Facebook, Twitter or Foursquare, for example, finds far more interested readers.

Both have a few things in common: they are stories about data that you and I produce being leveraged by independent developers to build new services and ways to make use of that data. I love EveryBlock and the way it shows me the 911 calls, restaurant reviews and news stories about the area I live in. It uses mostly government data. I really liked the story I wrote about it (“The Day Everyblock Came to Town“) but it got far fewer pageviews than the equally local story Boom! Tweets & Maps Swarm to Pinpoint a Mysterious Explosion.

Maybe that’s because it was about an explosion, and maybe because it indicated some fulfillment of the promise of data exploited. But I think it’s in part because it’s about Twitter data instead of about public data in the traditional sense of the word. Readers just don’t find government data very interesting. It’s a part of a larger problem I think: people don’t care about nonprofit or social good stories either. Far, far fewer people read stories about human rights, watchdog organizations, etc. than they do the big corporate market leaders online. We cover social good stuff anyway, because it’s important, but we always recognize that those stories are going to perform poorly in terms of readership.


  • C’est bon

    It’s about the myopic audience that hovers around the campfire of Techcrunch, ReadWriteWeb, Mashable, etc.

    Tech blogs have cultivated audiences that are like Pollsters and News organizations during an election. Who’s Bigger, Brighter, Shinier and going to Win? More importantly, who’s going to lose? Because, we all love a train wreck.

    Without getting into the complexities of how internet “news” has become bite-sized chunks of near zero-perspective or depth, your audience’s capabilities of sustained cognitive engagement are steadily decreasing. That cognition just might be required for stories about government data or non-profit humanitarian ventures. I mean, hey, where’s the train wreck?

    Tech blogs have brought this on themselves. Each vying for eyeballs and ad revenue. How about a non-profit tech blog that actually provides sustained stories and depth? Kind of like a PBS of tech blogs? Funding? Right, no train wreck, no dollars.

    I say, carve out the niche. Forget about page views and comments on one out of every ten posts. Enlighten us. Wow us. Eventually, it will pay off. And, if it doesn’t, at least you’ll feel as though you were really doing your job. But, it’s also possible you’ll bring in a very new audience to your site? Those who don’t read the standard tech blogs today, because they don’t give a rat’s a** about Twitter, Facebook, iPads or Facebook, or Facebook, or Facebook…

    Bon chance.

  • I share your thoughts Marshall. I’ve covered the open data scene in the UK regularly at The Next Web. I’ve found that posts about the data itself don’t necessarily do well but when something really interesting is done with it, it’s different. The ‘almost realtime’ tube map (also covered at RWW) a couple of months back was a hit because it had the “Wow” factor – it fulfilled an obvious need.

    I think in many cases, developers are still “Kicking the tyres” of what government data can reveal. It interests data geeks like us but I don’t think we’ll see a wider appreciation of open data until some as-yet unachieved “Eureka moment” when the public at large realises “You know, 2010 was a watershed year for public data”.

  • Nice story on EveryBlock. I don’t think the issue is govt data, but brand names. Twitter is a brand with millions of users. People read stories with Tweets in the headline. Mysterious explosion doesn’t hurt either. What’s more, I don’t think they connect EveryBlock with govt data, especially without looking at the story. And those non-lookers are the ones you’re speculating about. I think you need a more finely controlled experiment to test your thesis.

  • Todd

    They don’t care because of a lack of context!


  • I said some of this on twitter already but I think Gov 2.0, at least in the US, has focussed far too much on asking for data feeds and developing apps, independent of what the public is asking for. I definitely agree that apps like EveryBlock are awesome, and probably will have a slow seeping penetration thing over time. But it just makes far more sense for government to begin an online dialogue with various sectors of the public, regarding larger questions of, “What should we be doing and how can you help?”, not simply, “What data feeds do you want?”

    The data independent of a viable context just isn’t that motivating. If, for instance, in the above example, citizens were clamoring for something that told them crime stats were they were standing, the story would be more about the dialogue between government and the public that led to this cool app called Everyblock.

    I just tend to hear this idea that the public doesn’t care about open government because they aren’t using the data feeds that “we provided them”. Without the context of open government, which is participation and collaboration, transparency starts to fall on deaf ears. In fact, in abscence of participation and collaboration, I would contend the transparency aspect is FAR more important inside government than with the public. Unfortunately, we have ignored internal transparency but are pushing government to get out data feeds that for some reason just aren’t getting the traction we expected…

  • June

    I’m in the “context” camp. And the “eye-pop” one too. “Data” even sounds so 1970s. To make it more palatable to a new, Twitterized generation, data needs to be incorporated into more digestible formats. Which is why the use of cutting-edge graphics, to show off the data, is increasingly important. Of course catch words do help- “wikileaks”, crammed with data, was an overnight sensation. But god help us if nothing short of that and “explosions” will grab eyeballs and induce public interest.

  • Steve Ardire

    No that there’s a conference on The Business of Data Government http://strataconf.com/strata2011 perhaps this will change 😉

  • Pingback: Gov 2.0 Radio Hot Links – August 28, 2010 « Adriel Hampton: Wired to Share()

  • Pingback: Gov 2.0 Radio Hot Links – August 28, 2010 | Gov 2.0 Radio()

  • Great post – got me thinking not! A few thoughts…

    1. Is unbiased info as captivating as a strongly worded review, opinion, etc?

    2. Government data has been collected for a long time. It is only now being released in the Gov 2.0 revolution. That is fascinating – but not quite as interesting (to me) as the different platforms that are now hosting/collecting/sharing data about individual users – data which has never before been collected at such scale.

    3. The tech industry (and others, me?) may hold a slightly negative view about government organizations. I know I can be lulled into thinking that they are slow and archaic. Therefore, that might cause some to underestimate the value of their data. (one might think “If this was really valuable data, wouldn’t someone have already figured out a way to collect that data?)

    I work with a company that has two mapping projects underway. One harnesses government data and UGC, the other works strictly with UGC. I find both fascinating, and both are valuable and rich data sources. Both undoubtedly have drawbacks and strengths (unbiased vs. biased, limited vs. expansive, etc.)

  • Oops – meant to say

    “got me thinking now!” my apologies.

  • I think Noel hits on the real issues above, and I would expand that to say that the Gov2.0 movement has focused solely on improving government, when in fact we also need to be focusing on developing an engaged and informed citizenry.

    This is far and above simply enabling government to engage with citizens and into the realm of accepting and even pro-actively guiding the cultural shift that technology has enabled in the relationship between citizens and government.

  • Pingback: Building processes « Geohesion()