Thinking Differently About Data

Right before the New Year’s holiday, the City of Philadelphia released some very important information as open data.

The city released a data set showing outstanding property tax balances for properties in Philadelphia, making the data available as both a static download and through an API.

I’ve always believed that this data was incredibly important – not just because it might be used to help the city improve its dismal record on collecting delinquent property taxes (which help fund both city operations and the School District of Philadelphia), but also because of the potential to encourage people to think differently about how data can be used to reshape city services.

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Who Uses Civic Tech?

Who uses civic technology, and why should we care?

A new study from mySociety – a non-profit based in the UK that focuses on civic tech – helps us answer these questions and provides some invaluable information for the civic technology community, and for governments.

mySociety surveyed civic technology users in four countries to understand the characteristics of civic tech users and their attitudes toward the solutions they are using. This is an important study that will no doubt be discussed in great detail in the civic tech community, but I see two key takeaways that bear some immediate discussion.

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Density and Destiny

Perhaps no other process of government that has such a significant impact on people’s lives is as opaque and less understood as establishing the rules for land use.

Maybe the redistricting process. Maybe.

How land is zoned – the setting of specific requirements for how land may be used, and even how buildings and structures on land may be designed – is a complex process because discretion for setting zoning rules is generally delegated to local governments. My home state of New York provides a very comprehensive (though somewhat dated) guide for local communities that want to institute zoning rules. It’s a fascinating read.

Land use rules can fundamentally alter the character of communities, and there is an increasingly robust body of research that suggests that where you live – where you are born, grow up, access educational opportunities and job opportunities – helps determine your lot in life. There is also an abundance of information available that details how land use rules have added to the very serious problem of segregation in many communities in this country.

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In a time when our collective attention is focused on higher offices at the state and federal level, it’s easy to forget about local government officials – particularly at the town and village level – and the work that they do. County legislatures, city councils, town councils and village boards all have a part to play in deciding how land gets used – and, by extension, where people get to live.

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Participation and the Cult of Catalogs

“Anonymous access to the data must be allowed for public data, including access through anonymous proxies. Data should not be hidden behind ‘walled gardens.’”
8 Principles of Open Government Data

In the world of open data, there are few things that carry more weight than the original 8 principles of open data.

Drafted by a group of influential leaders on open data that came together in Sebastopol, CA in 2007, this set of guidelines is the defacto standard for evaluating the quality of data released by governments, and is used by activists regularly to prod public organizations to become more open.

With this in mind, it was intriguing to hear a well known champion of open data at the Sunlight Foundation’s recent Transparency Camp in Washington DC raise some interesting questions about one of these principles, typically considered sacrosanct in the open data community.

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Buck the system or work the system?


“Systems are broken because they exist to sustain themselves, and the people who run the system rely on the system to stay the same. Why should they change it? It works well for them.”

Chris Guillebeau

My friends at Technical.ly Philly ran an interesting piece yesterday about the long road to the release of an important data set on property valuations and ownership in the City of Philadelphia. It’s definitely worth a read.

The story is compelling for many reasons. It details the interactions of a small group of people (myself included) moving into and out of government and employing different strategies to win the release of property data – a resource much sought after in the journalism and civic hacking communities in Philadelphia. Throughout the story an interesting dichotomy emerges.

“Buck the system” or “work the system” – which approach works better?

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No Assembly Required

assembly

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Sharyn Morrow

When we think about all of the work being done in the civic technology and open government communities over the last several years, it’s easy to see the impact.

Evaluated just in terms of the number of datasets that have been released by governments it is clear that the impact of those advocating for more open, responsive and agile government has been significant. But those working in these communities have far more to show for their efforts. One of the most under appreciated (at least in my opinion) is advice: solid guidance and recommendations for how to make things better.

Consider all of the work being done to provide recommendations for governments to use technology more efficiently and to become more open and transparent. There are countless examples where individuals that have developed expertise over many years of working to improve how governments use technology and data share their learnings and recommendations freely and openly. We don’t have a shortage of good ideas for governments to use to start making changes to how they use technology to build services and engage citizens.

But I think there is a legitimate questions as to whether enough governments are using these recommendations, or they’re not using them quickly or effectively enough.

I’ve spent a lot of time lately wondering why.

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GovTech is Not Broken

When we talk about the challenges that face governments in acquiring and implementing new technology, the conversation eventually winds around to the procurement process.

That’s when things usually get ugly. “It’s broken,” they say. “It just doesn’t work.”

What most people who care about this issue fail to recognize, however, is that while the procurement process for technology may not work well for governments or prospective vendors (particularly smaller, younger companies), it is not broken.

It works exactly as it was designed to work.

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Bridging the CitiStat Gap

One of the realities of being a Chief Data Officer is that your day is often filled with meetings where you are the least popular person in the room.

Working with government agencies to release data – particularly if agencies are new to the open data process, or if the data in question has not been released before – can be challenging. Releasing open data can invite scrutiny of agency operations from the public and the media. Agencies may view releasing open data as falling outside of their core mission, particularly if their plate is already full and there is little or no funding to support the work that needs to be done to make data available.

Working with agencies to release data can be a lonely job.

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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.

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Civic Tech: Days of Future Past

A new focus on the user

These days, in the world of civic technology, it’s all about the user.

Digital government service redesign, with an enhanced focus on a higher quality user experience, is being institutionalized in the federal governments of the U.K., U.S and Australia. The civic technology community is rallying around a new focus on building solutions that are needs-responsive and community-driven.

“Build with, not for” became the unofficial theme of last year’s Code for America Summit, and the upcoming Personal Democracy Forum in New York will feature a similar theme with talks and panels focused on broader engagement and inclusiveness in the development of civic technology.

Organizations like Code for America have long been focusing on redesigning government service interfaces, but this idea now seems to have permeated every corner of the civic technology movement. This wider embrace of the need to enhance the user experience with government is coupled with a recognition that civic tech solutions are most effective when developed with the full participation of those that they are meant to benefit from them.

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