The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 13, 2015

Who is open data for in DC?

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We are excited about the recent reinvigoration of open data efforts in the District of Columbia. DC has positioned itself as a laboratory for the intersection of data, technology, and public policy.

One of the major moves Mayor Bowser brought to the city’s open data efforts was bringing Matt Bailey on board as the director of technology innovation. With a great background in using technology to advance civic goals from his previous volunteer position as co-lead for DC's Code for America brigade, Bailey brings new ideas and great energy to this position. Importantly, Matt is in close communication with the Office of Open Government, which is led by Traci Hughes and recently was bolstered by additional staff. Working together, these two groups are positioned to make open data a cornerstone of better governance for all DC residents.

Recently, the Urban Institute convened a meeting with Bailey and Hughes and leaders from nonprofits, federal agencies, and the private sector to discuss ways DC—and organizations more generally—can promote a culture of producing and using open data. Bailey and Hughes encouraged new ideas on how to get feedback from the community about what open data is needed and how to share it. They also expressed exciting and ambitious goals about how the city can become a lead innovator in open data for use inside and outside government.

But to prioritize staff time and plan their approach, DC’s leaders must first think about how open data will be used. Here are three examples.

  • Improve government operations: Many users of open data are staff from other city government agencies who are working to improve operations or plan programs. Los Angeles recently transformed data on its various "special funds”—accounts that have dedicated revenue sources—into a consolidated and open dataset, enabling the controller to monitor city spending and find previously hidden funding streams for public projects.
  • Increase government transparency: In Mayor Bowser's transition document, she emphasized her commitment to restore trust in government through transparency. In Chicago, every payment from the city is posted on its open data portal on a rolling basis. In Oakland, the local Code for America brigade created a visualization of the city's budget so residents can understand the sources of revenue and spending.
  • Engage citizens: Open data can be used by elected and agency officials to get feedback from constituents about community needs and public priorities. In July, nonprofit Operation Spark hosted a three-day coding event to better use data to improve policing. The New Orleans Police Department and City of New Orleans Office of Information Technology and Innovation released a preview of datasets to a group of 15 young coders and their tech mentors as part of the city's participation in the White House’s Police Data Initiative. Police achieved dual goals of releasing new, untested data and building trust with the community.

These and many more uses of open data—for commercial product development, nonprofit planning, private- and public-sector innovation—are all valuable, but could suggest different data  priorities and require different outreach and engagement strategies.

There's no one right answer about the mix of emphasis, but there are right processes. The Sunlight Foundation's Open Data Policy Guidelines recommends ways to open data, including specifying and sharing how the data releases are being prioritized and formally incorporating diverse perspectives into policy implementation. As one example, San Francisco developed guidance on priorities and criteria for publishing data, including how to find interested partners and stakeholders, release data that addresses a pressing public policy issue, and pull together different kinds of data into a single interface.

There’s much to do to create an open data culture in DC, from encouraging government agencies to share data in better ways (both internally and externally) to encouraging DC residents to use and explore existing open-data portals. We are fortunate to have top minds in various sectors eager to engage and partner with the city to get the most public and private benefits from the city’s amazing information assets. Working collaboratively, we can help the District reclaim its position as a leader in this area.

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.