Should your organization be sharing the information it gathers about programs and services? There are benefits to doing so—and there are risks. Generally, sharing data is not common practice, but as funders increasingly demand information about the effectiveness of the organizations they support, more and more nonprofits are doing so.

Strictly speaking, open data is information that’s accessible, standardized, and reusable. If your nonprofit has data that could be made open for the use of other individuals or organizations, how do you open it?

The first step in opening your data is technical openness. Technically open data is available to anyone online, easy to download, and exists in a common format. Data is most commonly shared as comma-separated values in Excel or text files.

There are a few options for where to make your data available. Based in part on the options recommended by the Open Data Handbook, an online resource for all things open data, we suggest the following:

  • Post files for download from your website.
  • Share via a third-party site such as github.com or ckan.org.
  • Use FTP servers like FileZilla, or public Cloud servers such as Dropbox, Box.net, or Microsoft SkyDrive.
  • Utilize a torrent—a transfer process that divides bandwidth between participating computers so large amounts of data can be shared efficiently—through services such as BitTorrent.
  • Use an Application Programming Interface (API), an automated “port” that allows controlled access to your data.
  • Work with a project or community explicitly established to provide a means for data distribution, such as the Sunlight Foundation.

Each option has its own strengths and weaknesses, both for your organization and for those who will access it. For example, if you host the data on your own site, you can ask people to fill out a form to download it, which gives you a way to track and follow-up with users. For more information about the different options or how to choose the one that best fits your organization and your data, visit the Open Data Handbook website at opendatahandbook.org.

After technical openness, the second step of open data is legal openness. This means ensuring that people know your data is available and free to be used by anyone without any legal obstacles by applying an open license to it. This is a relatively simple process—for more information, follow the technical directions from the Open Data Commons, an Open Knowledge Foundation project that outlines legal issues surrounding open data.

If you decide to open your data, start small. It doesn’t make sense to immediately open every dataset you have, especially if time or resources are a factor. Creating a culture of transparency in your organization isn’t going to happen overnight, but it’s possible if you make it a habit.

Read Idealware’s full Open Data Overview for free at https://idealware.org/articles/open-data-overview.