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Sunlight Foundation Overhauls U.S. Data Census, Adds Sets That Speak to Social Issues

The open data advocacy group is now tracking which cities open information about emergency calls, employee salaries, police use of force and traffic crashes.

The Sunlight Foundation has relaunched its U.S. City Open Data Census, a survey and a benchmarking tool aimed at fostering increased understanding of the information city governments make available to the public.

The tool was created in 2014, and Alex Dodds, Sunlight Foundation’s open cities storyteller, said the platform had become outdated and in dire need of technical upgrades, so much so that Sunlight and its collaborating partner, Open Knowledge International, decided to rebuild it. At the time of inception, the U.S. Open City Data Census was intended as a reference point for what data is open and available in which cities. Its role, however, has evolved.

“Over the last several years since the project has been in existence, there’s been a growing interest in cities to learn from one another, to understand what other cities are doing, and to use that information to make their own cities better,” Dodds said.

Essentially the U.S. City Open Data Census has grown from a reference into a guide and, for some cities, also into a set of open data aspirations. Four new data sets have been added to the census, those being emergency calls, employee salaries, police use of force and traffic crashes. The last two sets are especially noteworthy, given their potential to speak to ongoing issues of social concern in many cities. Emergency calls is also a data set that cities are increasingly making open to the public, given its potential to help direct resources to address the ongoing opioid crisis.

Every data set being inquired about on the census has been released by at least one city in the country. Some have received support from other levels of government as well. The police use of force category is an example of this, having been a priority under President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which emphasized the need for police departments to make better use of data and technology to build community trust through transparency.

“A lot of city staff — to their credit — are thinking about what impact is this information going to have to my community and my city,” Dodds said, “and what are the things going on in my city that residents are concerned about and care about, and how can open data better inform at that.”

At present, there are 213 cities listed on the census. The census asks cities about 20 data sets, and for each of those data sets there are also several component questions. Cities can join and add themselves to the census, or residents can take the initiative and add cities.

The latest iteration of the census dropped three data sets, those being asset disclosures, campaign finance contributions, and transit information. Dodds emphasized that Sunlight’s position is that these are still very important data sets that would serve the public by being open, but they were removed from the census because it is not within municipal government’s power to make that information open.

In connection with the rebuild of the U.S. Open Data Census, the Sunlight Foundation is hosting Open Data Day 2018, an event set to take place Saturday, March 3 in Washington, D.C. Sunlight will give a tutorial on how to search open data sets and ultimately add information to the census. For those who can’t attend in person, there will also be a hangout on Google for remote participation.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.