Open data: It’s not just for Silicon Valley nerds and East Coast policy wonks anymore.

Deep in the heartland there’s a data revolution taking place. In a range of initiatives, municipalities across Kansas are mobilizing information to inform the citizenry and drive government performance.

The official state motto of Kansas: Ad Astra Per Aspera. To the stars, through difficulty. It’s a pioneering sentiment that seems to be driving data innovation. In the state capital, Topeka officials just launched a new performance tool that puts government metrics online. Johnson County recently kicked off a data-driven justice initiative. Olathe and Wichita have open data efforts underway.

In Kansas City, Kan., a new data portal is pulling information out of government systems and delivering it directly to the people.

A new role

Alan Howze worked at the IBM Center for the Business of Government in Washington, D.C., before taking the role of chief knowledge officer for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City in August. “This is a relatively unique role in local and state government: a position that combines the functional management of information technology, the GIS team, the 311 call center and the innovation and open data team, all in a single department,” he said. “It’s a brand new approach, and we are writing the rules as we go.”

Fresh out of the gate, Howze helped launch an open data initiative. He built the new portal with help from What Works Cities, a $42 million Bloomberg Philanthropies effort to spark urban data innovations.

“The weekly calls with What Works Cities have played a big role in pushing us to keep moving forward,” Howze said. “It also gave us access to a broader network of communities who have done similar things. It allowed us to pick up and build on some of those best practices.”

What Works Cities put Kansas City in touch with Los Angeles officials, who were able to describe the inner workings of their own map-based data portal, L.A. GeoHub. Using an existing Esri GIS infrastructure, Howze adapted and repurposed the Los Angeles model to meet the local need.

“We saw a template there that could work well for our community. The code is on Github and Esri helped us understand how to use that template, so that our team was able to pick it up and turn it around quickly,” he said. For a city of 160,000 people, “it is really helpful to be able to build off the investments that other larger communities have made.”

Other Kansas municipalities have similarly benefited by leveraging national relationships as a kind of force multiplier for data-driven projects.

Johnson County for instance is one of several communities participating in the White House Data Driven Justice initiative. Backed by that effort, the county has merged mental health and policing data to identify trends and deliver better services.

County managers identified some 127,000 individuals who showed up in data sets covering EMS, mental health and incarceration. They are looking to use this information to launch proactive outreach to help keep at-risk individuals out of jail, according to the University of Chicago Center for Data Science and Public Policy.

Data drives action

In Topeka, meanwhile, technology leaders recently unveiled a program that they say will allow government and citizens to tap data not just as a source of interesting information, but also as a spur to positive government action.

The new performance metrics website incorporates information from across a range of government agencies and functional areas. Major subjects include customer service, fiscal health, safe and secure communities, and stewardship of the city’s physical assets, among others.

Visitors who drill down get direct, easy-to-read metrics describing government’s performance against its own self-defined goals. As of mid-December there were only 12 defendants enrolled in the alternative sentencing court, against a goal of 15, for a rating of “near target.” Only 503 business licenses had been issued in late 2016 versus a goal of 630. Verdict: “Needs improvement.”

The goal is not to shame agencies, but to promote positive action, said Deputy IT Director Sherry Schoonover. Consider those business licenses. “This is a responsive program. They do not actively go out and say: Hey, buy a license. So the question becomes, why do the numbers look like this?” she said.

“After the reporting comes the analysis. Are people not aware of what is available? Is the economy not growing? Do we need to join this to some other initiative? Now that we have the data out there, we can really take a look at what can be done,” she said.

Topeka built its performance page on top of a Socrata business intelligence system already in use by the city for budget portals and open data. After a $7,000 startup expense, the city will spend about $22,000 a year to license the cloud software, Schoonover said.

With the technology infrastructure largely in place, the IT shop’s biggest challenge lay in convincing departments that an accountability offering like this would be in their own interests. Cooperation was crucial: Departments needed not only to deliver the data, but also to participate in setting the performance benchmarks that would define their own success or failure.

Schoonover made the pitch that this was not some radical new requirement, but rather an outgrowth of existing governance. “We all define our strategies to comply with council directives. Everyone is used to providing reports to city managers and executives,” she said. “Now we need to provide the justification for what we are doing and why.”

Many within city government have come to embrace the premise of transparency, seeing in the website an opportunity to tout their successes and to engage the public in a better understanding of the challenges they face. “They see that they can tell a story here. It gives them an opportunity to talk about problems that everyone is already aware of and to share some of the good things they are doing,” Schoonover said.

Just a few days after the site launch, the city already was seeing positive outcomes, like when a local journalist grabbed hold of some policing data benchmarks and compared them to national numbers. “That is important. We don’t know how good or bad we are doing until we look at other organizations of similar size and similar structure to see how we stack up,” Schoonover said.

In Kansas City, meanwhile, officials say they are eager to see whether newly available data will help in the city’s long-running effort to clean up blighted neighborhoods. Howze’s team made property information its first priority in building the data portal, specifically to support this effort.

“Blighted properties have a significant effect on neighborhoods, their economic conditions and financial resiliency,” he said. “Each parcel that is delinquent in taxes raises the costs for businesses and residents alike. Every abandoned property or vacant property has an expense attached to it, so we are focused on ways to work with the community to tackle those challenges.”

The city will likely go after operations data next: Parks information, street maintenance data. “This is information that is already being collected that we can pick up from the departments and easily make available,” Howze said.

Why does Kansas find itself at the center of so much data activity? Lean budgets play a role, Howze said.

“Resource constraints can be the mother of invention, pushing people to think of new ways to tackle some of these complex problems without having hundreds of millions of dollars to pour into neighborhoods,” he said. “The fiscal constraints are forcing people to re-examine the tools, and that is driving a growing awareness of the power of data to help solve some of these problems.”

Adam Stone  |  Contributing Writer