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What's New in Civic Tech: U.S. Senate Passes OPEN Government Data Act

Plus, Sunlight Foundation releases A Guide to Tactical Data, NYC Planning Labs launches its first project and tech continues to prove useful in the aftermath of major hurricanes.

The U.S. Senate has passed the Open, Public, Electronic and Necessary (OPEN) Government Data Act, a bipartisan bill aimed at providing a governmentwide mandate requiring federal agencies to publish their information as open data.

This bill was incorporated into a package of amendments for the Senate’s annual defense policy bill, which is known as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Passage of this $700 billion bill stands as a rare act of bipartisanship at a time when such cooperation appears to be at a low. While the NDAA has passed the Senate, it still must pass the U.S. House of Representatives and then be signed into law by President Donald Trump, a pair of events experts consider eventualities. If this happens, the OPEN Government Data Act will then become law, provided the House keeps it as part of the NDAA.

Other significant requirements set by the act include mandates for agencies to publish data in machine-readable formats with open licenses. Open data and government transparency advocates have praised this bill, saying it would be a powerful tool for open data reforms throughout the federal government.

The bill’s lead sponsors in the Senate are Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE). It also has bipartisan support in the House, where its lead sponsors are Rep. Derek Kilmer (WA-D) and Rep. Blake Farenthold (TX-R).

This act builds on President Barack Obama’s May 2013 Open Data Policy, making portions of it permanent.

Sunlight Foundation Releases a Guide to Tactical Data Engagement

There is a growing desire on the government side of civic tech to find ways to encourage the public to make better and more frequent use of the data that municipal agencies are making public.

Efforts to do this are diverse in nature, ranging from data visualizations to creating actionable tools such as dashboards and platforms that can do things like help renters quickly access data that is relevant to the properties where they sign a lease. Now, the Sunlight Foundation has created a resource to help city leaders and members of the community work together “on increasing the social impact of open government data,” according to the group’s website.

The report is called A Guide to Tactical Data Engagement,and it challenges municipal governments to make their open data programs more transparent, accountable and participatory. The challenge is one that many local governments — especially larger jurisdictions — have voluntarily undertaken on their own. Whether their efforts are proving to be effective is a bit harder to judge.

Getting the average citizen to be aware that open data is out there, to say nothing of motivating them to use it, is a challenge in itself. With this in mind, the Sunlight report provides a four-step process aimed at helping readers complete projects, products or tools that tackle specific community needs, thus making them more likely to be used. These steps are:

  • Find a focus area by observing the community
  • Refine use cases by interviewing stakeholders
  • Design a plan by coordinating with target users
  • Implement an intervention by collaborating with actual users
These tactics and more of the report have been drawn from examples of what Sunlight considers well-done resident engagement that’s already at work across the country.

NYC Planning Labs Launches a Mobile Responsive Community Profiles Site

New York City Planning Labs has launched its first project: a mobile responsive community site it describes as a “gateway to data, maps and other resources describing New York City’s 59 community districts.”

Residents of the city, or anywhere else for that matter, can access the NYC Planning Community District Profiles from their computers or mobile devices in order to obtain all kinds of open data broken down by district, from population density, to the ages of residents, to racial demographics, to the percentage of residents that are foreign-born. It’s more than just learning about people, though. The platform also provides more nuanced information, such as info about potential flooding, zoning, ongoing land use applications, and much more. There’s also a resource section for each district where users can quickly download data sets.

This marks the first project launch for NYC Planning Labs, which was itself launched by the city in June. The group is headed by veteran data mapper Chris Whong, who upon its launch emphasized that the idea would be to bring a startup ethos to city government projects and thereby foster innovation.

This project certainly fits, with its well-designed interface, quick build cycle and mobile responsiveness.

Tech Efforts Continue to Help with Response to Recent Hurricanes

In the wake of a series of devastating hurricanes that have swept through Texas, Florida and the Caribbean, tech efforts involving government continue to be valuable assets for the affected regions, both in terms of weathering the storms and for gauging the extent of the damage.

Socrata, a private company that works with municipal governments to foster open data initiatives and platforms, has an outreach team that created a tool for finding FEMA shelters in the continental U.S., as well as in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. The map gives users a simple place to find the address of the closest shelter and to access info such as how close to capacity it is. FEMA has a similar mobile-only map, but a spokesman for Socrata notes that their map is both mobile-ready and Web-based and designed to keep the last FEMA update online in the advent of FEMA’s servers going down.

And while procurement data may not seem like an obvious choice for proving helpful after a major hurricane, another company is using it to give FEMA and other stakeholders a valuable window into the extent of the economic damage that was sown.

Before any company can bid on government proposals, it must obtain something called a DUNS number from the private company, Dun & Bradstreet. This is a unique nine-digit identifier, one that is currently vital for participating in the federal procurement process.

Using this identifier, Dun and Bradstreet has built models for FEMA to measure the economic impact of the storm, complete with information about the impact in terms of number of businesses, size of businesses, industries, sales volume and jobs.

The info is also available for public perusal via the Baseline Business Risk Profile, where it has been broken down by the U.S. territories that were effected, specifically by Florida, Texas, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. A spokesman for the company also said the info has been shared with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the relevant state governors.

Tech experts have said that data is often crucial in the wake of such disasters, and this marks yet another example of that. There have also been other widespread examples of how tech helped inform communities and residents about flooding risks and the locations of shelters during the actual storms. 

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.