Open Hamilton

Open data in Hamilton County

This report outlines the benefits of a robust open data policy for Hamilton County, Tennessee. It provides key policy recommendations to improve current practices and government transparency. It is supplemented with three case studies, which examine open data practices in other counties, an inventory of currently available data, and examples of how open data can be used in practical applications.

What is open data?

Open data is defined as online information that is “free to access, use, modify and share”. Open government data is “produced or commissioned by government or government controlled entities.”

To further unpack this definition, open data should be free to access without fees or registration requirements. It should be free to use or modify in machine-readable formats without the use of proprietary software or technical expertise. It should be free to share with at most an attribution requirement. Finally, open government data should take into consideration the need for confidentiality and security, specifically where the privacy rights of citizens are concerned.

Benefits inside government

For users inside government, open data improves policy, operations and accountability.

Information sharing leads to better policy decisions. Government tends to be territorial with different departments and offices operating in silos. The most effective policy solutions to problems, however, often require coordinated efforts between different government entities. A robust open data policy would establish clearer pathways of information within government. Better communication and analysis of data could potentially lead to better informed policy decisions.

Openness creates internal efficiencies. When timely data is available in clear and accessible formats, government employees can access information online rather than contacting other offices for assistance. Giving others direct access to information might lighten the workload for offices that receive frequent records requests.

Open data drives transparency and accountability. When openness is prioritized, government looks at data differently. It becomes a public, rather than private, good. Open data pushes government to operate transparently and ensures that timely, accurate information is communicated to the public.

Benefits outside government

Users outside government — citizens, media, businesses and nonprofits — also benefit from open data.

Open data reduces barriers to information. The Tennessee Open Records Act (PDF) ensures that citizens have access to records created by government. However, there are barriers involved. For example, requesters have to be Tennessee citizens, and fees associated with labor and printing of records may be prohibitive to individuals. Open data can reduce these barriers to information. Better access to information drives engagement. Residents should be aware of what their tax dollars fund and the services government provides. Open data helps communicate this information and may result in more engaged and aware citizens. Open data also facilitates faster and better analysis of government policies and programs by journalists, academics and nonprofit organizations.

Data helps fuel economic development. Open data can help businesses understand local opportunities and make data-driven decisions. Entrepreneurs and established businesses can use open government data to develop products, improve services or conduct market research.

Status of open data

The progress of open data varies at the federal, state, county and city levels of government.

In 2013, President Barack Obama signed an executive order “making open and machine-readable data the default for government information.” The federal government created an online portal for all government data. hosts around 180,000 federal datasets.

In 2014, Tennessee’s response to the federal initiative launched under Gov. Bill Haslam. Transparent Tennessee provides a high-level overview of the state’s efforts to make data more accessible. Earlier this year, state Sen. Jeff Yarbro sponsored legislation creating a task force to study the feasibility of a future open data policy for state government.

In 2014, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke issued an executive order establishing open data as the new standard for city government information. The city’s open data portal currently houses more than 270 datasets.

Hamilton County currently does not have a standalone open data policy. Different offices and departments publish some information on the county’s website.

Internal and external demand

Open data needs to serve a demand from within government and from its constituents.

Metro Ideas Project interviewed 21 Hamilton County officials to assess how their offices handle internal and external requests for information. We found that there is often cross-cutting information needs among departments. Requests are typically handled by telephone or email communications.

Even when information is available online, employees sometimes choose to call other offices rather than seek out information themselves.

The volume of information requests varies among departments. In some cases, personnel deal with a high volume of public information requests.

The county clerk’s office, for example, receives an estimated 75,000 telephone calls a year. For other offices the burden is much lower. Information requests are rarer for offices that handle confidential information, such as the health department.

In an online focus group with 18 local nonprofit professionals, respondents strongly agreed that open government data was important to their work and would increase their confidence in county leadership. However, they rated Hamilton County as performing low to average on transparency.

Other highlights:

  • 67 percent have looked for data on Hamilton County’s website
  • 17 percent believe Hamilton County government is not very transparent
  • 89 percent would feel more confident in county leadership if an open data policy was implemented

A 2015 Pew Research Center survey provides insight into the broader public’s attitude toward local governments and open data:

  • 7 percent say local governments share data very effectively
  • 45 percent think governments share data somewhat effectively
  • 53 percent believe open data makes government officials more accountable
  • 49 percent think open data improves the quality of government services

Improving transparency

A number of guidelines and recommendations already exist for local governments interested in a robust open data policy.

The Sunlight Foundation has developed a set of open data policy guidelines for local governments. Here are some key guidelines for Hamilton County government:

  • Proactively release government information online
  • Reference and build upon existing public accountability and access policies
  • Create a comprehensive inventory of all information holdings
  • Determine and communicate which datasets will be prioritized for release
  • Apply open data policies to contractors and quasi-governmental agencies
  • Safeguard sensitive information

Here are some action items for the county:

  • Determine an oversight authority
  • Create guidance or regulations for implementation
  • Incorporate public perspectives into open data policy
  • Set timelines for implementation
  • Create data quality guidelines
  • Secure sufficient funding
  • Explore potential partnerships with other governments, organizations
  • Mandate future reviews of the open data policy

While there are general recommendations for initiating an open data policy, each government is different. Hamilton County officials should talk to their counterparts in other local governments, such as the city of Chattanooga, and learn from others’ experiences before adopting the most suitable approach to make data open.

Identifying challenges

In interviews, stakeholders across the U.S. identified common challenges in implementing an open data policy. These challenges fall under three broad categories: political, cultural and technical.

Political: Government is risk averse. Officials and employees may be resistant to open data out of fear of negative scrutiny or judgment. This challenge is easier to overcome once it becomes clear open data is becoming a norm across the country, and that it is intended to help, not hinder, government’s work.

Cultural: Some do not understand why open data is important. They think of data as having little use to government or the public. Once the value and opportunities of open data are understood, it’s easier to make cultural changes.

Technical: Government is complex. Each department and office may use its own vendors or platforms. Each office may have varying levels of technical expertise. Technical challenges can be overcome with proper training, oversight, and automated data reporting processes.

Hamilton County officials also identified potential challenges.

Buy-in may be slow: Some mentioned that government is slow and resistant to change, particularly when the benefits of a new policy are unclear.

Usefulness is unclear: Many could not imagine how open data would benefit the public or government. To them, the data currently available online is sufficient.

Strain on existing resources: Officials said an open data policy would strain current financial resources.

Collection would be difficult: Different departments and offices use different software and collect data in different formats. They said streamlining collection efforts would be difficult.

Data has different owners: While county government owns much of its data, there are cases where ownership is determined by an outside entity. For instance, many health department records are technically owned by the state.

Privacy concerns: Offices that handle sensitive information — sheriff’s office, health department and human resources — raised privacy concerns.

High technical hurdles: Some said keeping data up-to-date would be difficult, specifically information that changes daily.

Lessons learned

While the challenges may appear daunting at first, they are not insurmountable. We spoke with officials from Baton Rouge, Chattanooga, Nashville and San Mateo who have put open data in action.

They all faced similar challenges implementing their policies and offered advice on how to move forward.

Leadership is key. Open data starts at the top. Executive buy-in is essential, especially when there is initial skepticism or push-back. Practitioners said good leadership is critical to ensure there is regular reporting and quality standards are met.

Careful groundwork is critical. Before making data public, clear reporting guidelines and mandates need to be established. An open data oversight authority needs to have a comprehensive understanding of different offices’ functions and needs. This initial groundwork should also include public outreach to learn what data and formats are most valuable to citizens.

High-value datasets should be a priority. Open data efforts should focus on quality not quantity. Stakeholders should learn from practitioner counties and cities about what datasets have proven popular.

Partnerships make a difference. There is a growing community of local governments and organizations with valuable experience in open data. Hamilton County officials should seek out partnerships and advice from those who have already been down this path. For example, Chattanooga representatives expressed an interest in hosting county data on the city data portal.

Data is valuable when it’s accurate and timely. Users benefit the most from data that is timely, valuable and comprehensive. Automation and the strategic use of new technologies can reduce reporting burdens. For example, restaurant inspections could move from paper to digital reports on tablets to expedite data entry.


“What is the appetite for an open data policy in Hamilton County government?”

We asked that question of county employees in all of our interviews. Responses varied by office. Some were genuinely excited by the potential benefits. Others expressed disinterest, even hostility, to the idea. The majority were receptive while acknowledging the challenges involved.

Further research into what this policy might look like should be conducted. The responsibility for advancing this initiative rests with the mayor and County Commission.

There is enough support to start the conversation. Other counties and cities that have implemented open data policies are eager to share their experiences. Several nonprofit organizations offer comprehensive policy guidelines to serve as a starting point. Finally, some of the financial burden is mitigated by Chattanooga’s offer to host county data on its data portal.

Citizens increasingly expect government to be more transparent, accountable and efficient. An open data policy would help Hamilton County better meet those expectations.


  1. Annex 1: Focus group questions for nonprofit professionals
  2. Annex 2: Response from nonprofit professionals
  3. People interviewed for this report

Jacqueline Homann

Policy research director

Jacqueline Homann has worked at a number of international and federal institutions. She is a graduate of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and holds an M.A. in policy studies.