What the Feds Can Learn About Open Government From States and Cities

During the government shutdown, as an unprecedented default loomed, public approval of Congress stood at just 13 percent. Ordinary people shook their heads in wonder at the disfunction in Washington. Alaskan crabbers remained at port, and essential government workers fumed at having to work for no pay. But without an outlet for engaging legislators in any more than a perfunctory way, the general public was unable to prevent a shutdown despite overwhelming disapproval of the move. When it comes to the federal government, there is no public square in which those with opposing viewpoints can hash out differences and come to compromise.

What’s to be done? One solution comes in a model increasingly seen at the local level. A growing number of American cities are compiling and releasing governmental data to the public and engaging the public in the use of that information—a movement known as open data. Beyond Transparency, a new book in which I co-authored an essay, presents a first draft of the history and future potential of open data. As a research associate at the New America Foundation’s California Civic Innovation Project, I study the process of innovation in local government—a process that sometimes involves open data. (Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.) Collectively, the essays in the volume point out that while datasets related to crime or public transit, social service distribution, or school test scores don’t have much value on their own, they offer the potential for community groups, residents, technologists, and policymakers to come together to solve community problems.

How does this work, practically speaking? After all, not everyone has the time, resources, or even motivation to access spreadsheets of city data, and not all city departments maintain those kinds of records. But the successes speak for themselves: A system to track city buses using GPS might result in shorter wait times, as officials can document and address delays. A comprehensive map of crimes by location could result in a more efficient and effective deployment of police resources.

But these types of service improvements are only the tip of the iceberg. Open data has the potential to transform residents’ relationship with their government if the community is engaged in the process of generating and parsing data. Take an app developed by San Ramon, California’s Fire Department. PulsePoint notifies those trained in CPR when 911 operators are informed that a person nearby has gone into cardiac arrest. The app has the potential to save lives by encouraging active citizenship. Or take the case of the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, which collected noise-level data in the Tenderloin District in San Francisco. The data made a powerful—and successful—case for the rerouting of emergency vehicles and a reduction in city construction permitting in the early morning and at night.

Open data isn’t limited to the local level. The Obama White House has championed open data, issuing an executive order and open data policy to guide government agencies. Since they have more resources than municipalities, many federal governmental agencies have made tremendous progress in releasing their data. But the mere release of open data by federal agencies is not enough.

The federal government may have a more challenging time using open data as a way of engaging individual citizens than municipalities that have more day-to-day contact and personal relationships with the public. But Washington can take a page from cities and use open data as a starting point for engaging lawmakers across the political spectrum in a conversation about how to solve complex problems in ways that extend beyond the proverbial partisan divide.

Open data at the federal level and transparency measures more generally could even prevent disasters like the rollout of the health care exchanges website. Rather than releasing healthcare.gov with no previous public intervention or testing, government workers and contractors could have crowdsourced the de-bugging process.

Recent revelations about government surveillance make many people reticent about government collection of data, even if transparency policies are strengthened. But opening some data in easily digestible formats can go a long way toward rebuilding trust in government. It demonstrates that the government is interested in using data to address community needs and sees the public as an ally in identifying and implementing changes, not simply collecting data for its own sake or with some Orwellian interest.

By encouraging public use of data to develop new approaches and more efficient allocation of resources—an easier reporting system for the Environmental Protection Agency or the successful crowdsourcing of U.S. Agency for International Development data to allow for better mapping—the federal government can use open data as a 21st century public square where ideas are not only discussed, but actually acted upon. After all, what good is open data if no one is using it?