Open Data: Moving from Checklist Item to Transformation

Cities around the country have led the way to creating the checklist of innovation items that make them great: Open Data Portals, 311 Call Center, Mobile Citizen Request app, new website redesign, social media strategy, Citistat performance management, strategic and competitive partnerships with Google, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Code for America, etc. This is the list for most cities to be compared to their peers as being a leader, not a follower. However, being that we are several years into this progressive innovation agenda, I am eager to see these items transition from being a checklist item and into an organizational change behavior instrument. Namely, Open Data.

Open Data has the tag lines of increasing transparency, building accountability, and increasing citizen access to services. Don’t get me wrong, there have been incredible tools built on open data portals as seen by OpenCityApps in Chicago, Austin Texas’ IMMPACT, and KCStat performance management systems. However, as noted in a conversation with Mayor Sly James of Kansas City, “No one ever visits those sites.” While cities, have led the way in making more data and information available online, we still have a long way to go to make it truly publicly valuable.

Open Data is only the preface to a much larger and more interesting book about innovating government. Its time to move beyond the introduction and get to meaty chapters of truly revolutionizing government.

I was sitting in Washington DC for the Socrata Customer Summit last fall and I was having a spirited conversation with Abhi Nemani. If you know Abhi, every conversation with him is spirited. Our focus turned to open data. We have all seen the deluge of open data portals and countless open data sets being published and made available, but are they actually creating increased public good?

“We need to focus on quality over quantity.” Abhi Nemani

We theorized that cities could do a lot more by focusing on the release and publication of a controlled group of datasets that would transform government. People aren’t interested in Chicago and New York City having over 1,000 published datasets. Its not a race to have the most.

The public is losing interest in open data because they have yet to see real change from it.

Key services should be the focus: street paving, sidewalk repairs, potholes, Parks & Rec data, and others should be the focus. Location of public assets such as public schools, libraries, parks, police precincts, council districts, fire stations, trails, and other GIS specific data should be first. Citizens and businesses should be able to enter their address and find information like Google does for them. Here is when your trash is collected, you should put out your recycling on Wednesday, your local elementary school is 1.2 miles away, open enrollment begins on August 1st, your voting location is at 123 W Main Street. Instead, we are force most citizens to scroll through pages of lists written in broken bureacratese that don’t always have the most up-to-date information.

Jonathan Feldman, CIO of Asheville, NC, has made an amazing leap forward in this space with his Simplicity website. Check it out with address 127 Hillside St! Just start typing and select the address. See what is possible with open data and open source technology.

Let’s focus our Open Data initiatives in fixing these areas of customer service. By making the data for these basic and foundational elements of government operations public, we allow for the coders, developers, and hackers to show us how THEY want to interact with government. This reverses the usual norm of focusing residents and businesses to learn the archaic and chaotic manner in which government is structured. Let’s instead consider the reality that we collectively know what people want and are looking for because of Google Analytics on websites, call volumes through 311 Call Centers, citizen Social Media generated content, etc. Let’s structure what citizens are looking for so that they can find it like they do with everything else online.

Imagine a city that had information structured and presented like Google. Where the most commonly requested services had Amazon featured “Users also used these services” window. Cities need to structure their open data to present information as customers need it, not in how government is structured to get things done.

For example: cities have data and information that labels owner occupied buildings and renter properties. We know by zoning classification, where and what type of businesses operate by their address. What if you typed in your address and received information specific to the type of user you are. If you type in an address you are looking to move into, we know that as a rented property, you are going to want to know how to transfer utilities to your name, verify information about trash and recycling collections, and to know if you need to register for a parking permit. Oh, and you might want to know that the streets are going to be cleaned every third Thursday of the month, so beginning at 8am, make sure your car is off the street. This is all possible with a clean, simple, and strategic open data plan.

The power of open data moves beyond transparency and accountability, and into building equity. Citizens benefit when data is made available in a usable format, regardless of their internet access. The quality of the services provided them is being made visible to all, watchdog’s included. Making government services information transparent heightens the urgency to make sure internally we are operating smoothly. The malaise of internal government operations quickly changes when employees know their work is being seen publicly. I now know that my job as a city employee is directly being consumed by the public. There becomes a sense of public value and worth beyond the internal performance reviews that have minimal (if any!) reward for hard work. For example, when the City of Richmond published its Payment Register data online beginning in July 2015, there was an immediate cry of foul. Payments were seen as excessive when viewed in the public’s lens. Description fields for payments had limited impact previously and had become an after-thought for entering data. Due to internal checks and processes, payments must be approved and validated prior to being entered into the system. Therefor, limited information about the purchase was entered. Now when this data was made available, that purchase for $300 for employee supplies and the first item on the receipt was for cargo shorts, and that is the only text entered into the field, because, well “that’s the way we’ve always done it”, things change. We didn’t buy $300 worth of cargo shorts, we bought tools and supplied to support an emergency project need. There were several other relevant items excluded from this purchase. Now due to the open data initiative and the publication of the Payment’s to vendors, we were able to see how important each field was. Previously, this was only viewed by the Finance and Budget departments. Now we have made efforts to improve this process. Why? Because the underlying values and benefits of open data created internal change.

I want to see open data shift from an innovation checklist item, into a revolutionary tool to change government. The What Works Cities Initiative has a lot of promise to bring change across many cities in this arena, and I am eager to see their outcomes. I want there to be the ability of seeing a governments budget, connect to vendor payments, payroll, and Capital Improvement Projects, to express financial transparency of where the money was designed to go and its end spend. The progress nationally has been monumental. I don’t want to downplay the efforts of Open Data initiatives nationwide, for without their pioneering, I would not have been able to implement one in Richmond. I do, however, want to see where this goes next. Creating data standards, reporting standardizations, operational reporting and other tools is the next frontier.

Let’s write the next chapters of Civic Innovation using open data together. Who is with me?

Recovering bureaucrat. Pioneered as Civic Innovator. Now serving a second term on City Council in Richmond, VA. Words are my own.

Recovering bureaucrat. Pioneered as Civic Innovator. Now serving a second term on City Council in Richmond, VA. Words are my own.