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Paint a (Data-Driven) Picture

Visualizing information is the next step in making open data portals more useful to the public.

by / October 25, 2013

With a click of a button, governments can now make a dizzying number of data sets available to citizens. The information, from 311 calls to budget trends, can fundamentally change how the public engages with policymakers. Most of the time, however, the sheer amount of data proves daunting to those unfamiliar with spreadsheets and sophisticated data analysis. How can officials make the data they provide more useful to the public?

Increasingly, public officials recognize that simply providing raw data isn’t enough. One solution to making data more accessible involves visualization. Interactive charts, maps, and graphic aids can transform data, allowing consumers to quickly shift through thousands of data points to view patterns and draw conclusions.

Chicago’s Data Portal includes functions to visualize many of the city’s 955 open data sets, with user-configurable options for various kinds of charts and maps. The city also curates an official site to highlight third-party use of its open data at, many of which take the form of maps or visual apps that make the data more useful. For example, last year civic technologist Tom Kompare built a flu shot finder that Chicago eventually incorporated into its own website.

Visualization also plays an important role in helping officials and citizens alike understand municipal service requests. For example, Citizens Connect, Boston’s 311 app, allows users to view service requests on a map of the city. By looking at all spatially clustered requests, viewers can identify related concerns and even propose solutions through the app. Users can see which neighborhoods have the most service requests, and they can also click on the map to see which requests have been investigated and closed. Mapping 311 data makes it more relevant and usable to different neighborhoods while also allowing the city to ensure it is serving all residents equitably.

Budgets also provide high-value targets for visualization. How governments spend public money is a crucial and deeply contested aspect of governing, but even in the transparency era, citizens labor to decipher thousands of pages of PDFs showing one line item after another. Several cities have begun to address this problem with budget visualization tools that turn the dreary budget PDF into categorized, interactive and searchable charts. South Orange, N.J., implemented one such tool, built by OpenGov, earlier this year. Mayor Alex Torpey has found it useful for internal processes and for communicating the realities of budgeting to the public. “As people begin to understand the complexities of how this money gets divvied up [through the visualization], they understand that they’re not solving problems by just suggesting to cut the budget,” he said. “To me, it’s not just the accessibility piece but the education piece. I want people to understand what we’re doing.”

Visualization drives interaction and responsiveness. The dramatic enhancements in visualization must catch up with the transparency, data analytics and performance movements in order to drive true progress. 

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Stephen Goldsmith

Stephen Goldsmith is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: the New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America, and The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance.

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