Your government has a lot of useful public data, but it is not always in the most useful format. How can we, as a community, take that information and turn it into something productive?
In "Communities of Transparency: Open Data in Action," Francisca Rojas, research director at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, contrasted two very different approaches to public databases.
The first example was unsuccessful at engaging large groups of people, according to her. The federal government published www.recovery.gov for citizens to track where the money went.
The site included a fund distribution map with the main takeaway of indicating that more populated areas received funding, she said, adding that there was no indication of need or priority among the data.
A few months after being published, the site languished and at least one state's page stopped being updated.
"What is the type of problem? How relevant is the data? Who are the stakeholders?" She asked.
For the federal government, it addressed a collective issue—jobs and accountable spending—without addressing the more personal need of answering, "Where can I get a job?" she said. Stakeholders were not successfully engaged.
The opposite result happened with local transit data. A city on the West Coast released some transit and geographic information system data, mostly on-time percentages for local buses.
Mobile application makers took this and other data and created a mobile app that lets you know if your bus is running late. It was highly successful, she said.
It addressed a personal need of catching the bus.
There is a ripple effect of a successful program. Public entities release data which is transformed into applications by developers. The developers pass those products on to the end user, whose feedback improves the application. As the applications improve, the public entity is better able to assess what information it can and should release to the public.
Successful examples of community participation in programs such as this include the New York City bike sharing program, Frank Hebbert, director of civic works for Open Plans, said.
The most recent major action the city has taken to increase transparency has been to roll out a new and improved version of its website, www.austintexas .gov.
Web content manager Chris Florance said the Communications and Public Relations Office and the city's IT team spearheaded the effort, but any department with a Web presence helped on the almost two-year rollout.
"Austin was one of the first municipal websites. We had one very early, in 1995, and it was regarded as a best practice website," he said. "It really had not had any kind of major upgrade for the better part of a decade. The technology that was maintained was very inefficient and archaic. It had not evolved. We still, basically, had a 1999 website."
Florance said the outdated technology, poor navigation, bad search engine and overall inefficiency, and the labor that went into the system were the drawbacks to it.
On the side visitors saw, the city looked at the state and federal websites, as well as Yahoo, Google and Amazon for inspiration. The city also strove to make the site easy to maintain for the staff, he said.
The city held public beta testing Dec. 19 and sought feedback.
"We found that for about 80 percent of users, it was a much better user experience and much more easily able to find what they needed," he said. "For that 20 percent who had invested a lot of effort into navigating the old site, it has been something of a culture shock and shift."
Florance said the 20 percent includes frequent users, activists and developers. He added that the city has been trying to reach out to them to create something that works for them as well.
Work is not done on the site, Florance said. It will become easier for staffers to post blog entries on upcoming events. The newsletter "Austin Notes" is slated to be revamped, and the search function will improve over the next few months.
Florance said the city offers open data through its data portal, data.austintexas.gov. The section of the site includes reports on water quality sampling data, restaurant inspections, police incident reports, affordable housing data and where municipal court violations take place, among others.
"There are a lot of dynamic data feeds there for journalists, students and web app developers," he said. "A blogger can go on that site and create pretty cool reports embedded on their website."
The city has also partnered with Code for America, "a kind of AmeriCorps for programmers," Florance said. It identifies stakeholders in city government and comes up with dynamic applications that provide service to the public.
Florance said there was a program in Chicago where residents volunteered to clear away snow from fire hydrants—a major safety hazard.
"You can go online, adopt a fire hydrant and agree to dig it out," he said.