One of the most innovative solutions to help government work better is right under our noses. It exists everywhere, across services and sectors, inside agencies and departments. It’s not magic — it’s data.
There’s a growing focus, both inside and outside of government, on putting data to work to improve services, create more transparency and increase public engagement. The Sunlight Foundation advocates for open data because we know that information is power. The public should have access to information about how government functions, and government should use the data it collects to improve how it works.
More often, data serves as a bridge between the public and government. Los Angeles recently made its water usage data publicly available, and technologists used it to create an app to help users conserve water. Residents can view water waste around them, get alerts about when it’s crucial to conserve and engage with the community about water conservation via social media. In Philadelphia, civic hackers recently created a smartphone app to record bike trips in their city. With this data, the transportation department can identify area cyclists’ needs and start improving the biking infrastructure.
A data-driven approach to decision-making increases accountability, particularly when the public can access the same information. In Chicago, technologists developed a Web app with crime data released by the police department that lets users explore crime trends citywide and create data visualizations. The app also gives users contact information for each ward alderman. Citizens can use such data to understand the true picture of crime in their community and hold city officials accountable for addressing the issues.
Initiatives like these foster a stronger working relationship between government and the public, and save cities the time and resources it would take to do these projects alone.
Sunlight recognizes that while governments, especially municipalities, are eager to find ways to improve their data use, they face challenges in adding the skills, policies and infrastructure to make it happen. Using data in ways that will benefit the public is something modern tech enables for even the smallest governments, but how can we help them make that transition?
Sunlight has begun work to do that as part of a new effort to support improved use of data in cities nationwide. The What Works Cities initiative, funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, will work with 100 mid-sized U.S. cities over three years to create and implement better open data policies and practices. It’s the most comprehensive initiative to focus on data use in city government. Participating cities will receive the skills, tools and knowledge to gather, interpret and use data to greatly improve decision-making and ultimately their residents’ lives. We also hope to see sizable spillover, sparking conversations and leading to better data use in more U.S. municipalities.
While there’s been a major shift toward engaging municipal governments to release data in the past several years, the movement still faces several challenges. Some governments argue a broad range of political, personal and practical reasons for not opening data. And some city administrations resist the changes in government culture that would result from data disclosure. There are also concerns over data release being resource intensive, and departments may fear losing funds if information reveals shortcomings in their operations.
But we’re optimistic that much of the hesitation to adopt standards for data disclosure will be overcome with help from open data experts like Sunlight. Dozens of localities nationwide have already passed open data policies or developed open data portals to disseminate information, and these cities have made huge strides in adopting data-driven solutions to better their communities.
By putting data to work, we can improve the relationship between government and the public. We can solve real-world problems, which not only makes government work better, but also positively impacts people’s lives. And perhaps most important, we can use data to empower citizens to become more active participants in their communities and democracy.
Chris Gates previously served as the president of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for open government globally and uses technology to make government more accountable. He stepped down in January 2016. Gates is a thought leader in the fields of democratic theory and practice and political and civic engagement.