Advancements in Data-Sharing Are Changing How Government is Run

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Leaders in policy and technology from around the world gather for the Sunlight Foundation’s Transparency Camp.

On May 30th and 31st, innovators in government and technology joined together for the 5th annual Transparency Camp, led by the Washington, D.C. based Sunlight Foundation.

Throughout the two-day event, conversation revolved around the dual concepts of government and data, exploring their interconnected nature and the rapid advancements in data that are changing the way our governments run.

Kicking off the camp was Anthea Watson-Strong of the Google Civic Innovation Team. Drawing from the work of Ethan Zuckerman, she focused on the idea that through the use of “high-value data sets,” the internet can lead to “easy, yet impactful” action on the part of citizens.

Much of the rest of the camp focused on deconstructing this concept. What data is valuable for the public to have? How can this be made accessible to residents, and how can they in turn use it to improve their communities and hold their elected officials accountable? Ultimately, how can innovations in data-sharing be used to strengthen our democracy at every level, and especially locally?

The most foundational of these questions, though, is what data is of value to the general public. Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is almost all city data can be used in meaningful ways by the public, allowing them to become more informed and engaged citizens.

Take, for example the “out on a limb for data” project underway in New York City. Through an effort to decrease the destructive power and massive clean-up needs of trees falling during storms, the city is using block-by-block pruning information as part of a formula to predict which trees are the most vulnerable. From this, they have found that regular pruning of trees leads to a 22% decrease in emergency cleanups.

While conventional wisdom might suggest that data on tree pruning is not essential for city residents to have, the work being done in New York shows its potential importance, as it can allow community members to better prepare for extreme weather events. If access to data on tree pruning is beneficial to citizens, it’s hard to imagine that there is any sort of data that would not be.

Making Data Available, Accessible & User-Friendly

Given the natural limitations as to the amount of data that can be made accessible in a short period of time, a certain amount of prioritization must be done. Since the increased use of data is meant to be a tool to engage citizens, this prioritization need not be the work of only elected officials and city staff; it can, in fact, be something that engages the whole community.

Philadelphia, for example, has already taken steps to do this through its “Open Data Race.” By giving non-profit organizations an opportunity to propose datasets that, if released, would be helpful in accomplishing their work, Philadelphia has created a platform for residents themselves to prioritize the release of data. Not only are citizens given a voice at the table, but they are able to work in conjunction with the government to help build a better city for all.

Over the years, residents of cities and towns have been forced to struggle with the fact that even when data is made available, it is rarely user-friendly, contained in extensive, unsearchable PDF files at best. With rapid advancements in technology, this problem is quickly being addressed, allowing data that has been deemed useful to the public to rapidly be made accessible to average citizens.

On the website FindTheBest – a research engine focused on both depth and breadth – citizens can complete a search, select “visualize,” and instantly have a graphical depiction of the information that they are looking for. Rather than searching through years of data in order to find useful information, users can instantly see, for example, whereas in 1964, payroll taxes accounted for only 19.5% of the federal tax revenue, today those same taxes comprise 34.15% of total federal tax revenue.

While this technology has not yet been implemented at the local level, it offers a promising direction for the future of data accessibility, allowing for increased use by residents.

Using Data to Engage Residents

In order for data to be a useful tool of a democratic society, it must be more than simply accessible: it must be used. Fortunately, one need only glance around the country to see the incredibly innovative ways in which cities have begun to make use to further engage their residents.

In Salt Lake City, a Snow Plow Tracker has been designed for use in major storms, allowing community members to see exactly where snow plows are working. Chicago has created an annotated map that is intended to help citizens and businesses better understand what the zoning codes in their area actually mean. In San Francisco, data is being used to build maps that show not only where crimes are happening, but also the nature of those crimes in any given area.

In only three examples, the diversity of potential for data use is abundantly clear. With its potential to engage citizens and provide improved city services, data is an integral part of the future of our local governments.

Coleman PictureAbout the author: Molly Coleman is an intern with the National League of Cities University.