Government Data And The Uber Question

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Amid the debate in New York City on limiting the number of drivers for ride share companies such as Uber, one key point was glaringly absent: Uber and similar companies born of the recent tech boom — Airbnb, Lyft and others — aren’t just disrupting the services of old-fashioned industries like taxi cabs. They’re disrupting government services too.

When the cost of a shared ride approaches that of a one-way bus fare in San Francisco and a tourist can book an apartment in Chicago at half the price of a tax-generating hotel room, local governments should take notice. Consumer companies are resetting expectations and redefining the social contract between city and citizen. It’s no longer acceptable for governments to offer “there’s a form for that” when private-sector companies demonstrate “there’s an app for that.”

Today’s opportunity lies in combining public, private and nonprofit data to create a new “golden triangle” of information — one that helps mayors get a complete handle on how their cities live, breathe and move.

So what exactly are local governments to do? At the U.S. Conference of Mayors last month, more than 300 mayors wrestled with these issues, sharing ways of connecting better with citizens, deploying the “stickiest” government apps and creating “mayor’s dashboards” of real-time city information. U.S. mayors aren’t the only ones grappling with disruption. Sydney, Australia is using technology to improve and set new service benchmarks — from lowering wait times in public centers from hours to six minutes, to shortening the time it takes to get a seniors’ card by 3,000 percent.

The common denominator in all of this is data. And not just public sector data. Today’s opportunity lies in combining public, private and nonprofit data to create a new “golden triangle” of information — one that helps mayors get a complete handle on how their cities live, breathe and move. It’s this information mashup that has the potential to dramatically change how cities govern, moving from political decision-making to data-driven decision-making.

When I served as chief technology officer of the District of Columbia, I opened D.C.’s warehouse of public data so that everyone — accountants, policymakers and businesses — could gain insights, contribute to improving services and hold the district accountable. Later, while serving as the United States CIO, I had the opportunity to scale the D.C. experiment nationally by launching the Data.gov platform, which opened up the workings of the federal government and gave the public access to economic, health, environmental, and other data and services.

We’re now at the dawn of a new data revolution, one in which governments, private companies and nonprofits have the the opportunity to collaborate and truly make their cities better places to live.

Governments who advocate for this “golden triangle” not only get ahead of problems, but also benefit from increased transparency with their citizens.

Imagine Uber or similar rider services sharing anonymized data with their local governments to uncover new transportation corridors for buses and trains. Or overlaying that data on top of public safety information to reduce traffic accidents. Imagine Airbnb sharing anonymized renter data to enable cities to communicate to small businesses about optimum business hours, such as days when its vacancy rates are low — a proxy for when an area has high occupancy and thus high economic activity.

Governments who advocate for this “golden triangle” not only get ahead of problems, but also benefit from increased transparency with their citizens. Private companies, too, could stand for a little more openness and connection to the cities where they operate, particularly when much of their data is citizen information. Indeed, people want to participate in the improvement of their cities.

A recent survey conducted by Salesforce found that nearly half (49 percent) of citizens would share real-time location with their local governments to make themselves safer. And 54 percent would share data from their personal vehicles to improve transportation.

Of course, as with all revolutions, the biggest threat is the status quo. Private companies are reluctant to share their data with governments, while many cities create a mirage of openness by releasing low-value datasets.

Thankfully, the topic of technology and the sharing economy is emerging as a key issue in the upcoming Presidential election. And that’s good news. This isn’t a time to be timid. Governments should broaden the conversation and seek opportunity in the tide of disruption. If local governments don’t act today, they risk being falling behind.

Featured Image: Kheng Guan Toh/Shutterstock

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