Civic Innovations

Technology, Government Innovation, and Open Data

Hearts and Minds and Open Data

Some people are taking a rather pessimistic view – or at least a “glass half full” view – of a recent study from the Pew Research Center.

A new study from Pew – entitled “American’s Views on Open Government Data” – looks at the general public’s perception of open data efforts at all levels of government. The highlighted findings suggest a somewhat muted enthusiasm among the general public on the benefits of open data programs:

Americans have mixed hopes about government data initiatives. People see the potential in these initiatives as a force to improve government accountability. However, the jury is still out for many Americans as to whether government data initiatives will improve government performance.

It’s an interesting study, well worth a full read. And for advocates of civic hacking and engaging with groups outside of government to use open data, I think there is some good news tucked away in the body of the full report.

The study presents findings from survey respondents who were asked about the data sharing practices of federal, state and local governments. When survey participants were asked about the data sharing practices of their local governments, many of them expressed a clear desire for a deeper understanding of the data that is made available:

[M]any commenters express a desire to have more context and meaning be part of their interactions with government data. They value demographic or budget data, but would appreciate additional information (e.g., trends, understanding cost and benefits of projects) that might involve greater analysis of the data. This desire signals an opportunity for those interested in putting government data to better use for the public.

To me, this observation suggests a tremendous opportunity for organizers working in cities across the country to engage people to use data for new apps, services and visualizations. If we’re going to give context to data from local governments, we need to have the perspective of people that live in neighborhoods and communities. I don’t think this is something that governments themselves can – or should – do.

It makes intuitive sense that people would care relatively more about issues that impact their daily lives, so it’s not surprising that we see this kind of a sentiment expressed about data from local governments. The services that municipal governments provide touch our lives much more intimately and regularly than services from state or federal government. Municipal data can tell us a lot about the neighborhood, block or street we live on in a way that is more personal than data from states or the federal government.

The modern open data and civic hacking movements were largely born out of the experience of cities. Washington DC, New York City and Chicago were among the first governments to actively recruit outside software developers to build solutions on top of their open data. And the first governments to partner with Code for America – and the majority over the life of the organization’s history – have been cities.

How do school closings impact individual neighborhoods? How do construction permit approvals change the character of communities? How is green space distributed across neighborhoods in a city? Where are vacant properties in a neighborhood – who owns them and are there opportunities for reuse?

These are all the kinds of questions we need people living and working in neighborhoods to help us answer. And we need more open data from local governments to do this.

The real work of making government open data programs matter to the general public is not a technology issue, and it’s not entirely a job for governments. This is the job of community building – of bringing people into the open data movement who can share their perspective, their experience and give meaning to the data that governments produce.

Without this deeper meaning, open data is essentially just big spreadsheets in the cloud.

This is the front on which the battle for more open, responsive and engaging government will be won – and it is the standard on which the evaluation of the success of open data should be made.

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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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