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News & Insights

News & Insights

Inside Open Data

At IEI, we’re intimately familiar with the “demand side” of public information. It’s rare, though, that we get a glimpse of the issues facing public sector managers on the front lines of supplying that information. That’s just what we got when we were asked to participate in the City of Austin‘s Open Data Initiative last week.

The catalyst for the launch of Austin’s city data portal was the 2008 Federal Data Initiative. Its mandate: incentivize cities to make at least 25 datasets open to the public. The intent was to free up the estimated $3 trillion in economic activity nationwide thought to be “lost” because government data was hard to access. The initial assortment of datasets first made available through this initiative laid the foundation for the current, more ambitious stage where relevant departments have to inventory all their available data and then offer the most potentially interesting and valuable of their datasets online in an easily accessible format.

This more difficult stage means a lot more work, but it holds several tantalizing prospects.

  1. Shared Responsibility. Turn passive complaints into opportunities for citizens to help solve municipal issues. Increased analysis will uncover some embarrassing metrics, but these data are also invaluable in finding the areas that need attention.
  2. Internal Efficiency. As time-consuming backlogs of public information requests evaporate, departments have resources freed up for other more important tasks. They can also preemptively create detailed analyses highlighting their notable successes to emphasize the value of their efforts.
  3. Better Decisions. Only fast, easy access to data needed for making those complex municipal decisions can enable the move toward true “data-driven” decision-making.

Other opportunities include:

  • Using the crowd. The City’s new “311” app allows people to submit text complaints and upload pictures (of potholes, lost dogs, downed power lines, etc.). Location data helps route the complaint to the appropriate city agency for resolution. The most popular topics?

    • Loose dogs (Animal Control)
    • Broken street lights (Austin Energy)
    • Loud music (Police)
  • Analyzing aggregate data. Both City staff and citizen activists can use the data for all kinds of analyses. For instance:

    • Plotting the home zip codes of City police officers (one way to gauge community “engagement” of the department–do they live where they work?)
    • Calculating the average wages and headcounts of municipal employees over time (to compare Austin metrics to other similar cities)
    • Analyzing how long it takes a department to resolve a problem after receiving a complaint (e.g., fixing a pothole, getting a building permit, etc.)
  • Making it easier to find current City employees. Online departmental staff listings are updated intermittently. The HR department spends a lot of effort fulfilling public information requests for simple things like:

    • Employment dates (for background checks)
    • Salaries (for lawyers of divorcing spouses)
    • Employees by areas of responsibility (for companies marketing services to them)
  • Allowing app developers to integrate diverse public data into the services they offer.

On a final note: IBM is supporting the City of Austin’s Open Data Initiative and we at IEI will be very interested in seeing IBM’s Watson Data Quality Analytics in action with active municipal data clean-up projects. This new Watson-driven service was designed to be used to highlight and resolve anomalous data issues quickly and from what we’ve seen already this could be a real game-changer.

We look forward to being a part of the City’s exciting initiative and seeing how this all plays out!

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