Civic Innovations

Technology, Government Innovation, and Open Data

Turning Governments into Data Stewards

The civic entrepreneurs behind Open Counter recently launched a new service called Zoning Check that lets prospective businesses quickly and easily check municipal zoning ordinances to determine where they can locate a new business.

This elegantly simple app demonstrates the true power of zoning information, and underscores the need for more work on developing standard data specifications between governments that generate similar kinds of data.

In a recent review of this new app, writer Alex Howard contrasts the simple, intuitive interface of Zoning Check with the web-based zoning maps produced by different municipal governments. Zoning Check is obviously much easier to use, especially for its intended audience of prospective business owners. And while this certainly is but one of many potential uses for zoning information, it’s hard to argue with the quality of the app or how much different it is than a standard government zoning map.

But to me, more than anything else, this simple little civic application provides an object lesson in the need for governments to invest less time and resources building new citizen-facing applications themselves and more time and resources mustering the talents of outside developers that can build more effective citizen-facing apps better, faster and cheaper.

To do this, governments need to reimagine their place in the civic technology production chain. In short, governments need to stop being app builders and start becoming data stewards.

There are a number of reasons why the role of data steward is a better one for governments – most importantly, governments don’t typically make good bets on technology. They’re not set up to do it properly, and as a result its not uncommon to see governments invest in technology that quickly becomes out of date and difficult to manage. This problem is particularly acute in relation to web-based services and applications – which outside civic technologists are very good at building – because the landscape for developing these kinds of applications changes far too rapidly for governments to realistically stay current.

Governments that focus on becoming data stewards are better able to break out of the cycle of investing in technology that quickly becomes out of date. It is these governments that are moving to release open data and deploy APIs to enable outside developers to build applications that can help deliver services and information to citizens. But in addition to procurement and recruitment hurdles that make it difficult for governments to get the technology of citizen-facing apps right, governments may also lack the proper perspective to develop targeted applications that expertly solve the problem of a specific class of users.

The truth of it is this – even if the processes by which businesses find out where they can locate, and what permitting and licensing requirements they need to comply with are terrible, there typically isn’t much they can do about it. Government’s lack proper incentives to get apps like this right because no one is competing with them to provide the service. If government’s change their role to that of a data steward, they can foster the creation of multiple apps that can deliver information to users in a much more effective way. Assuming the role of data steward would set up a competitive dynamic that would foster better interfaces to government information.

Look at what happened in Philadelphia when the city released crime data in highly usable formats – the city went from having one mediocre view of crime data that was developed with the sanction of the city to having a host of new applications developed by outside partners, each providing a new an unique view of the data that the city’s app simply did not provide.

The city even incorporated one of the apps built by outside developers into the official site for the Philadelphia Police Department.

Zoning Check is a great app to help center this conversation, and highlight the benefits that governments can reap if they work to transition way from being app builders and towards becoming true data stewards.

One response to “Turning Governments into Data Stewards”

  1. Reblogged this on The Data Consultant and commented:
    Great article on why governments should operate as data stewards and focus their resources on making data open so that third parties can incorporate it into their apps.

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About Me

I am the former Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia. I also served as Director of Government Relations at Code for America, and as Director of the State of Delaware’s Government Information Center. For about six years, I served in the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS), and helped pioneer their work with state and local governments. I also led platform evangelism efforts for TTS’ cloud platform, which supports over 30 critical federal agency systems.

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