By Mary Velan
When asked what they might expect from an open data program, many city leaders may focus on shiny, new technologies not realizing the most important component is the outcome. The value of open data solutions lies not in the technology itself but in its ability to help municipalities achieve their goals. For example:
- City of Raleigh, North Carolina has published some of the most capturing heat maps available to constituents. Whether it be DUI Arrests, Bus Stops, Neighborhoods with Strong Engagement or even Electric Vehicle Charging Station Maps, The City of Raleigh is focused on delivering information to their community in a way they can digest and interact with.
- The City and County of San Francisco use Open Data to push health inspection score data into environments like Yelp to help publish government information directly in the medium that can impact the quality of life of their citizens. With this level of insight directly in the hands of the consumer, government agencies can focus on hotspots for foodborne illnesses and drive healthier communities at large.
- Smaller communities like Macoupin County (IL), Kelso (WA), Tigard (OR), Stutsman County (ND), West Hollywood (CA) and hundreds of others are taking first steps into open data by opening their budget and expenditures to help educate their staff and citizens on the story of their finances.
Shawn Ahmadi, an Open Data Consultant with Socrata, spoke with EfficientGov about aligning open data technologies with government priorities and community needs to drive impact and efficiency. There are three specific types of outcomes that can be achieved with open data programs:
- Using government data to complement the quality of life in the community
- Improving the operational processes through better access and use of data
- Stimulating local and regional economic growth and activity
The key to driving these outcomes is by defining your city’s needs and tying them to one of the outcomes. This will ensure open data technology is being leveraged to address specific disparities and come up with unique solutions.
“Open data is not a product that either fits or does not fit a specific organization,” Ahmadi told EfficientGov. “Rather, it is a resource and tool that can be applied to achieve one or many outcomes.
Municipalities must define the desirable outcomes for the community as well as internal operations and then apply open data resources as a means to the end.
The greatest asset a government has its its people,” Ahmadi explained. “Therefore, it is imperative that people have access to the information they need to drive decisions.”
What To Consider
To ensure one or several of these desirable outcomes are reached through an open data program, local governments must take stock of their current situation and recognize all the disparities and weaknesses in the systems and processes. Cities should evaluate current operations by asking questions such as:
- What is our current state?
- What are the gaps in our process?
- What is costing too much money?
- What is taking too much time?
- Where are resources slim?
- Where are services lagging?
- Can open data automate that experience to save time and money?
- Can open data be used to improve and track overall performance?
- How would my community benefit from better access to information
Once the challenges and needs have been defined, they can be categorized and tied to ideal outcomes such as the three listed below.
When exploring open data solutions, local governments are starting to realize it is not just about comparing technology and vendors anymore. The process of adopting and deploying open data solutions has evolved into a people partnership where key relationships are driving three core outcomes:
- Engaged Constituency
Open data can be used to build a relationship between the local government and its citizens through increased access to information. When residents are able to access on-demand information and understand how the city operates and the solutions it offers, increased trust and accountability form. Furthermore, keeping data open and transparent spurs citizens to become more involved in their community. Once a resident experiences government information complimenting their quality of life – such as bus routes on mobile phones – they are apt to come back for more.
- Optimal Workflow
Internally, open data can be utilized to strengthen relationships between staff members and departments within governments, and reduce overall friction with stakeholders such as councils and administrators. When all departments are working together using a single, consistent source of information, workflow efficiency improves. The technology also enables a more collaborative environment through ease of use and accessibility.
- Economic Activity
Local governments can use open data solutions for a variety of purposes, and providers of the technology can help guide this decision making process. Providers can offer insight, direction, guidance and leadership on how to leverage the data to benefit the community and local economy. Cities can learn how to develop an open data program that caters to local business needs and future development strategies.
Furthermore, the people partnerships involved in successful open data programs often extend beyond the immediate community. Many cities will use open data to better connect with stakeholders throughout the region such as other cities, counties, states and organizations.
According to Ahmadi, these people partnerships provide tangible context for how open data can be used to derive the desired outcomes. This is where the concept of methodology becomes powerful.
When asked why a city chose to adopt an open data platform, the response can be any number of reasons such as citizens don’t understand all the services being delivered, or to reduce friction with council, or local media is scrutinizing the city’s transparency and level of communication.
“The responses can vary from an array of results though the findings will always be specific to the story of that community’s circumstances,” Ahmadi told EfficientGov. “Stories like public transportation lines see a boost in riders based on better insight into routes or reductions in foodborne illnesses by communicating out hot spots of detrimentally low health inspections scores, or even as simple as reduction in records requests pertaining to insights into permits and accessor information. The uses cases are in the thousands but specific to the circumstances of that community.”
There are problems that data can solve. It is up to the city to find a way to define what those problems are and be open to partnerships that can help resolve those challenges.
The overarching goal of an open data program is to make government information useful and meaningful to staff and citizens. The municipality should have the capabilities to proactively apply the data to the community, internally and with regional partners to spur growth, sustainability and quality of life.
“Citizens are always asking for and demanding access to information that belongs to them,” Ahmadi explained. “Government agencies must find a way to deliver this information in the most useful context and platform possible.”
To achieve this, municipalities should create people partnerships that allow them to drive outcomes based on the needs of the community and use technology such as open data to support that effort.
Local governments have tight budgets, limited resources and are asked to do more with less,” Ahmadi explained. “Local governments must work smarter. I feel like it is the opportune time to explore open data — when you realize you don’t have to have all the answers to get started, just a set of challenges that need to be addressed and solved.”