A couple of weeks ago, I had the honor of presenting to a group of government professionals at the Kentucky Digital Government Summit. The topic was Open Data and Citizen Engagement, and I was delighted to be co-presenting with Theresa Reno-Weber. Theresa is the Chief of Performance & Technology, Louisville Metro Government. Although we had not met until the day of the presentation, I had been following her work for some time, as it is one of the seminal stories in the brief history of Civic Technology.
Theresa was one of the first people in government to approach her role by combining open data, technology, and proven management methodologies and measurement systems borrowed from the business world. Louisville, KY, in retrospect, was the perfect place in which to put this combination into practice. The city was early in the open data movement, when in 2009 a desire to provide more transparency put them on an open path by providing easy access to expenditure data. By 2011, Mayor Greg Fischer made open data a fundamental tenant of municipal government.
Opening data was simply a starting point for Louisville. Their journey provided valuable lessons for the rest of the civic technology space around what happens after you open the data. More accurately, what does open data need to provide in order to turn metrics into useful and valuable information? The Louisville experience tells us that open government data has to:
- Provide Transparency: In Louisville, focus on Transparency and Open Data was one of the city’s six main priorities outlined in the Mayor’s Citizen’s Bill of Rights. The fact that open data is viewed as a fundamental right at all is a testament to the priority that the metro government has put on transparency. Beyond that, Louisville discovered that transparent and open data were also key to efficiently delivering on other commitments, including those articulated in these Bill of Rights and outside. In order to be useful, transparency must go beyond opening the data, and extend to showing the data in context, so that it is not misrepresented. The example that Theresa uses is from an early experience when the data showed that government money was being spent in the category of “liquor”. This raised more than a few eyebrows. With context, it became obvious that this line item represented liquor license refunds, a legitimate use of public money.
- Create More Efficiency: Using data to create efficiency requires asking the right questions. Mayor Fischer started with the questions that we are familiar with in business: what do you want to accomplish, what do customers (in this case, citizens) expect from us, and how do we know we are doing a good or poor job? That was followed by the creation of the role that Theresa serves in as Chief of Performance and Technology. This role is focused on creating a culture of continuous improvement, and data driven decision making. From a business perspective, looking at data in this way is a great way to allocate shrinking government dollars.
- Enable Citizens: The civic technology community sees this as the largest value creation dynamic of open data. When you open the data, you provide the food and the fuel for skilled and creative citizens to participate in solving societal challenges. Citizens are acting on their desires to make an impact on their communities in using those skills to build new solutions. And sometimes, there is enough value in that solution creation to build economic value. There is profit in leveraging open data to create solutions. Look at Yelp and their usage of health inspection data, for one simple example.
Opening data and making it available is just a start. Even when you provide that data in a clean, machine readable format, care has to be taken to ensure that you have enough examples of data that achieves the qualities above in order to build a virtuous cycle of citizen engagement and value creation.