White House Helps Cities, Residents Improve Quality of Life by Opening Data, Offering Digital Services

The White House has partnered with agencies, tech companies and others to launch the "Opportunity Project" initiative, complete with an open data site that assists citizens with 12 new apps for jobs, housing and more.

by / March 7, 2016
U.S. CTO Megan Smith reveals the Opportunity Project, a White House open data portal filled with 12 apps that help citizens find jobs, affordable housing and community resources. YouTube/The White House

On March 7, the White House released a trove of open datasets and tools to cultivate job growth, transportation, education and affordable housing under an initiative it calls the Opportunity Project.

At a morning press conference, U.S. CTO Megan Smith unveiled the project, saying it is meant to promote economic mobility using modern digital services and data that helps cities and residents enhance their quality of life. The vision, she said, was to create a joint platform with local communities, businesses, technologists and other groups to help residents prosper. The initiative drew support from variety of cities and tech companies that worked with the White House to create 12 different Web apps on the Opportunity Project’s site, at Opportunity.census.gov.

The participating cities included Baltimore; Detroit; Kansas City, Mo.; New Orleans; New York City; Philadelphia; San Francisco; and Washington, D.C. Data comes from a number of sources, with much generated by the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey. Smith commended all of the agencies, cities and offices that were pivotal to the portal's launch.

“When we want to team up and there’s an urgent need to do that, we can do that,” Smith said. “It’s in that spirit that the Opportunity Project is here.”

A taste of what’s envisioned can be found in the Web apps that allow visitors to do things like find affordable housing, discover high performing schools, locate nearby job openings and compare a neighborhood’s living cost to its economic opportunities.

Aden Van Noppen, a White House advisor for local innovation at the Office of Science Technology & Policy, said the idea sprang from a realization that meaningful open data at the federal level required support. Instead of simply publishing datasets through sites like Data.gov, the U.S. government's open data portal, Van Noppen said the administration learned agencies can assist by combining and curating data, establishing civic and industry partnerships, and opening the data up to developers — through methods like application programming interfaces.

Twelve development teams began work on the apps two months ago, and the hope is that civic developers and cities will post additional apps to the site soon.

“We see that as the art of the possible...of what we can really do with this data and with this spirit of collaboration,” Van Noppen said.

Real estate company Zillow, one of contributing tech partners, worked with Baltimore to create an app that identifies which neighborhoods can benefit most from additional affordable housing. A Zillow spokesperson said the app pairs Zillow’s own housing data with Opportunity Project data and other sources to map high-impact neighborhoods while tracking statistics on crime, jobs and nearby amenities.

“One of our core values at Zillow is to help everyone find their way home,” the spokesperson said. “This tool will help [housing] developers and local officials find neighborhoods that strike the best balance between access to opportunities for families, solid development and growth potential and a reasonable cost of living.”

In light of housing shortages in cities, the spokesperson said Zillow has prioritized affordable housing as a company goal. Previous to the launching the app, Zillow added several new features to its services that help renters hunting for affordable housing identify accessible properties. This might mean income restricted housing or landlords, dubbed “Community Pillar Landlords” that will adjust screening standards to accommodate renters with imperfect housing or credit history.

In an accompanying release, the White House said the Opportunity Project would be part of President Obama’s message when he speaks at the arts and industry tradeshow South by Southwest on Friday, March 11, in Austin, Texas. Likewise, it should be noted that the news comes only a month after the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a report recommending additional funding and agency support for smart city and open data initiatives.

Van Noppen said as work progresses, the White House will reach out to additional cities, companies, nonprofits and the public for support. The U.S. Census Bureau has also released a software development kit on GitHub for interested developers.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.