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Can Cities Process Data Like a Utility Service?

Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Chicago are among a host of localities attempting to process data within the same framework as water or any other natural resource — and it seems to be working.

To take advantage of the next chapter in open data and data-driven strategy, numerous localities unveiled plans on June 9 to test out a new kind of data platform — one that leverages both open and internal data similar to a utility service.

The new tech comes from the open data company Socrata, which has collaborated with jurisdictions across the U.S. to develop a platform that centralizes government data into a user-friendly feed. Socrata CEO Kevin Merritt unveiled the Data-as-a-Utility cloud service as Socrata’s first data-as-a-service (DaaS) platform. Key features include data visualizations in charts and graphs, default geocoded data for mapping, and city-to-city data comparison as available and easily downloadable content in bulk or sent to apps via application programming interfaces.

The most novel features of the platform, however, are arguably the ones hidden beneath the hood.

Speaking with Government Technology, Merritt said much effort has been dedicated to the back end of the program. Unlike many past iterations of open data portals, DaaS leverages machine learning to not only collect the data, but to interpret it as well. It immediately creates data visualizations in an automated fashion so citizens and non-tech government staff can participate and apply findings.

Additionally, Socrata intentionally designed the platform to be compatible with a wide variety of legacy data management systems, so it’s readily adaptable even if technologies are a bit worn. 

The accessibility is the reasoning behind the “public utility” comparison. Without as many barriers to the flow of data — and it being channeled within a single system — Merritt said it places data within the same framework as water or any other natural resource. Data, he said, can be collected, processed, refined and channeled for a number of uses and users.

“It takes the [government] workload from 75 percent data prep and 25 percent analysis, and flips this on its head. So it’s now, at most, 25 percent data prep and 75 percent analyzing and understanding,” Merritt said.

Input from companies like Zillow, Yelp and Google are incorporated into the design. And the DaaS platform has been beta-tested in major metropolitan cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City, Seattle and Chicago, as well as state and county jurisdictions such as the New York state and Connecticut.

Abhi Nemani, chief data officer of Los Angeles, said that city has already used the program to create nearly 50 pages of data visualizations and has opened them up for citizens to access — the demographic where he sees DaaS having major impact.

“I think it changes the way you think about the open data portal from just looking at spreadsheets from the Internet to more visualized, contextualized information,” Nemani said. “Now when you go to the data, say around our building permits data, you can see how it’s going month to month, you can drill into where that’s happening — which council district, which neighborhood, etc.”

Of Socrata’s automated data interpretation, Nemani was likewise complimentary. He said there is a sizable advantage to the platform’s ability to triage data for contextual information. Both in his current role and in his previous position as the co-executive director for the open data and civic tech advocacy group Code for America, Nemani said he’s constantly been asked how to find value in publicly available data. The challenge with this question is that each case is different and depends on specific goals and challenges trying to be solved.

While not all of the work is automated, Nemani said Socrata did a good job of identifying notable contextual information within data sets and then framing them into user-friendly interfaces of maps and visualizations.

“What’s nice about the new Socrata platform is that it lets regular people see what open data might mean for them,” Nemani said. “It just makes it more accessible.”

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