During 2009, it became fashionable for national and local governments to make their data available to the public. In September, for example, the UK government launched data.gov.uk, an online repository of such data sets as crime and healthcare statistics, while in January 2010, Mayor of London Boris Johnson unveiled the capital’s own public data store, data.london.gov.uk.
Credit for introducing this idea of data-driven government transparency to the world goes to President Barack Obama, whose data.gov started the global trend. But long before Obama was sworn in, the city where he now lives was pioneering the concept.
Back in 2004, the District of Columbia’s federal government took the decision to pursue what chief technology officer Bryan Sivak describes as ‘democratising data’. “We are now in the era where people are recognising the importance of open data, which is mainly transparency," explains Sivak. “Citizens have access to the government and they can actually hold us accountable."
The first step was to publish details of requests for such services as fixing a street light or filling in a pothole.
DC’s government has since made available hundreds of additional data sets on themes ranging from drug and crime rates to completed public works projects. A common argument for organisational transparency, whether in the public or private sector, is that it helps the organisation monitor its own performance, and indeed the public data sets now form the basis of the DC authorities’ own performance management.
Each government agency has access to an individual dashboard, which in addition to providing the visualisation of the data feeds also compares it to departmental performance targets. “It’s the way that the mayor and the city administrator quickly track an agency’s performance,” says Sivak. “If they see a sharp drop in that we get called in and asked what’s going on.”
Reflecting its maturity, Washington DC’s open data initiative includes ‘real-time’ data as it is updated. “It is this kind of live access to information that actually helps us change our operations on the fly and really become as agile as we want to be.”
The ‘real-time’ nature of the data also helps authorities manage not only long-term issues but immediate crises also. Snowstorms, for example, are a serious issue in DC, and the way in which the city responds is a matter of considerable public concern. “There have been previous mayors who have lost their jobs due to responses to snowstorms,” says Sivak. By placing GPRS sensors on snow ploughs during storms and making that data viewable online via Google’s mapping software, the district’s government allows citizens to track their response as it happens. “This is a great way for us to prove to people what we’re doing,” Sivak says, adding that it also allows district employees to identify which areas are being neglected during heavy snowfall. The upshot has been a fall in service request calls made to the relevant agency.
To derive the maximum value from the data sets, the DC government established an ‘Apps for Democracy’ competition, offering cash prizes to local software developers to make useful applications based on the data [see Update below] So far, this has produced systems ranging from automated walking tours to a device that allows the user to check the violent crime statistics in their immediate vicinity.
DC’s government is now assessing how it can further use data to promote citizen engagement in the political process. One idea involves challenging residents to identify opportunities for improving the efficiencies of processes, and if successful, sharing with them a percentage of the savings. “It’s a way to incentivise people to actually do better by leveraging all the data and business information that we have out there,” explains Sivak.
Sivak concedes that opening up access to operational data comes with a measure of risk and can lead to increased focus on the more negative aspects of performance – something that is especially hazardous in the political world – but he believes the dialogue that this encourages ultimately leads to a better-run administration. “At the end of the day, if somebody is pointing out that there is an issue with something we’re doing, or if there’s something we could be doing better, that’s fantastic,” he says. “They’re doing our job for us.”
Since this article was first published, Washington DC’s CTO Bryan Sivak has announced that the district is unlikely to run another Apps for Democracy contest. Sivak explained that many of the applications developed as part of the scheme had been "cool", but not necessarily useful for the citizens.
"I don’t think we’re going to be running any more Apps for Democracy competitions quite in that way," Sivak told US magazine Governing. "If you look at the applications developed in both of the contests we ran, and actually in many of the contests being run in other states and localities,you get a lot of applications that are designed for smartphones, that are designed for devices that aren’t necessarily used by the large populations that might need to interact with these services on a regular basis."
However, Sivak insists his department will continue to be involved with open data and that he now wants DC to engage directly with local developers to focus on specific social issues. This requires bringing developers closer to government and potentially exposing them to sensitive data, he added.