Open data and local government: Part One

In December, Route Fifty hosted a panel on the increasing role access to public data is playing in local governments both as a public service and an internal disruptor of existing practices. Panelists included city clerks, lawmakers, mayors, and more from around the country, large cities and small.

Open data and local government: Part One
By Jason Williams (no, that’s not Jason. It’s Dave Shutton, but it’s a good resemblance. Sort of.)

The forum provided an intriguing snapshot of how transparency and open data are helping to reimaging city and county government, and how that transformation isn’t top-down but being driven mainly by younger city employees and public involvement.

Some of the key takeaways:

  • Hackathons aren’t just for students and startups anymore. They are now a widely used means of exposing the public to state government.
  •  Technical innovation at the level of local government is gaining speed, but knowledge within local circles of existing technology hasn’t kept pace.
  • Open data standards and leveraging data to improve services isn’t just for large cities like Chicago and Pittsburgh any longer. Park City, Utah is using an advanced water data portal accessed regularly by more than 30% of residents and which notified residents and officials of more than 150 water leaks in its first weeks of use.
  • There are stories from all around the country. Riverside, California, using data analytics to plan infrastructure upgrades. Akron, OH, making property datasets available in bulk lead for residents to track and fend off decline proactively.
  • Leveraging increased knowledge of citizens’ actual usage to share and customize services even in cash strapped rural townships.

Amazing stuff. But a theme develops quickly both in this presentation, and everywhere discussion or implementation of “smart cities” initiative happens.

Resistance from employees to what can be a cumbersome and even nonsensical process of collecting data for… reasons? Some cities see an immediate ROI, either through their own work or an unexpected direction residents take the access to data for innovation. Others launch data driven initiatives with a narrow, single-issue goal, and sometimes see little of the expected return.

There are two important grounding points here, if we’re looking to maximize the role of public data in both public and private innovation in Utah.

First, how we (meaning both citizens and employees of state and local governing entities) think and talk about “open data” and “access” plays a larger role in data driven innovation than the technical, time, or resource challenges do. Some ideas won’t be cheap, some will be ridiculously free. And they all play a role.

Second, what role? Some of the most noble efforts to open up and engage citizens in their local governments self-immolated due to either too broad or to narrow a goal. A common phrase in city innovation conversations goes: “We built an app that does X, and no one uses it.” Do they not use it because the app is awful, or it is poorly advertised? Do they not use it because they don’t care about X? Do they not use it because the service it offers is incomplete or phoned in with minimal data or effort? These are all reasonable questions, and ones to which no city government or single elected official or public employee will ever get a lasting, definitive answer. What do residents want? Who knows? Well… they do.

It’s important for a city, county, state agency, or quasi-public entity to understand what residents want and need, but it’s equally as important to remember — especially if your city or county is just beginning to experiment with open data — you can’t know how data will be used. Just because your office is not being flooded with requests from angry mobs demanding this or that be opened up and made available digitally or online doesn’t mean there isn’t a desire for services beyond what you offer right now.

Imagine if, say, Salt Lake County polled all residents asking if the county should make more funds available for machine readable formats and design in public data.

See? You fell asleep just reading that sentence. A public opinion poll would result in a resounding ‘No’ because “if I don’t know what that is, I don’t need it,” and “the county already takes enough of my money in property taxes.” That’s human nature.

But if Salt Lake County could somehow reach understanding with residents on the service and innovation potential of the county simply making data available in machine readable formats for those who know what that is and can do fancy things with it, public excitement would increase quite a bit.

I’m not suggesting Salt Lake County do this, but it illustrates one of hundreds of things a city or county can do that, yes, may not excite a single resident or streamline a single department or office on day two. But as the examples provided in Route Fifty panel exhibit, it might. And in most cases, it did and more often not in the way local governments expected, and that is the point of open data as a default for governing bodies.

The question is no longer how much a city or county should offer online or in person. The answer is clear now. Residents of cities big and small increasing expect both options from local entities. The questions now are what more can local governments do to improve services and foster internal and external innovation with public data? And what might some creative resident or group do with public data if we make it convenienty available in usable formats?

Which leads us to Part Two (Coming soon): Usable Formats Whaaa?: How to talk to your county about open data. 

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