Back in 2008, when I embarked on my first city government job after college, the big technological advancement was that cities were beginning to accept online job applications.
Now, it seems cities everywhere are not only embracing technology but getting creative with harnessing its potential. From open data portals to hackathons to “civic apps,” the latest initiatives to emerge from cities are moving in the direction of linking data and technology to inform and improve overall performance.
This relationship between data, technology, cities, and citizens was one of the subjects of discussion for the chiefs of staff and policy advisors from the largest U.S. cities who gathered at the Harvard Kennedy School for the 13th meeting of the Project on Municipal Innovation Advisory Group (PMI-AG). At a panel on the “Relationship between Open Data, Performance Management and Application Development,” experts from the Sunlight Foundation, Socrata, and Code for America engaged with city officials to discuss the growing role open data is playing in local government. Here are some of their insights:
Making Open Data Meaningful
The prevailing concern about open data from city officials and their partner organizations is how to make open data meaningful. Emily Shaw, National Policy Manager with the Sunlight Foundation, spoke to the work the Sunlight Foundation has been doing to make government more accountable and transparent by encouraging the use of open data. She emphasized the need for cities to think about the ways they can make their data meaningful by not simply generating static datasets but making open data available online in machine-readable formats to help foster engagement. Erica Smith, VP of Ecosystem & Alliances at Socrata, spoke to similar themes, describing Socrata’s partnership with Code for America on SMC-Connect, a project to improve access to San Mateo County community services. Recognizing the fact that many services for children and families are provided during the school year but not during summer months, young entrepreneurs in San Mateo worked to create an open database of all community organizations and the services they offered on the SMC-Connect platform. Not only did this provide a centralized point of reference for local programs, it helped students access them online rather than relying on paper directories in public libraries and community centers. As Smith described it, it was an example of “open data coming together with USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] and school programs to form an effective solution.”
Making Open Data Interactive
Another prevailing theme of the panel was how to make open data more interactive for citizens. Joni Wickham, Chief of Staff for the City of Kansas City, MO, shared the work that the city has been doing in making its quarterly citizen satisfaction surveys more dynamic. While these surveys help the city gauge citizen priorities, it also wanted to ensure survey data could get back to citizens in an interactive way. The city invested in an online dashboard, located at kcstat.kcmo.org, which helps citizens find relevant and customized information from a combination of data collected from citizens and the city’s own datasets.
Using Data to Help Clarify the Problems
Finally, panel participants honed in on the opportunities cities have to leverage open data, performance management, and mobile apps to tackle some of the biggest problems they face. From providing real-time data on snow removal to mapping trends of eviction and health issues, data and technology are proving to be powerful tools for city officials to use in managing services effectively. Many participants also pointed toward the trend of cities using data to help consumers make informed market decisions, from the partnership between the city of San Francisco and Yelp to show inspection data on restaurant listings to the City of Chicago mapping out issues with rental properties. This session and the inspired informal conversations that followed offered a key takeaway—for all the differences between America’s major cities and the problems they face, data and technology have opened the door to innovative solutions as varied as the cities themselves.