Open data promotes citizen engagement at the local level

The city of Los Angeles recently released three free apps for its citizens: one to report broken street lighting, one to make 311 requests and one to get early alerts about earthquakes. Though it may seem like the city is just following a trend to modernize, the apps are part of a much larger effort to spread awareness of the more than 1,100 datasets that the city has publicized for citizens to view, analyze and share. In other words, the city has officially embraced the open data movement.

In the past few years, communities across the country have realized the power of data once only available to government. Often, the conversation about data focuses on criminal justice, because the demand for this data is being met by high-profile projects like Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisSan Francisco police chief apologizes for raid on journalist's home Gillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign Senate Democrats to House: Tamp down the impeachment talk MORE’ Open Justice Initiative, which makes California criminal justice data available to the citizenry and  the Open Data Policing Project, which provides a publicly searchable database of stop, search and use-of-force data. But the possibilities for data go far beyond justice and show the possibility for use in a variety of spaces, such as efforts to preserve local wildlife, track potholes and  understand community health trends.

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Although the concept of making data freely available for searching, modifying and  sharing is not new (the World Data System, for example, was created in the 1950s to store and share data collected from scientific observational programs), numerous federal campaigns have brought the issue to the forefront. The creation of Data.gov in 2009 and the signing of the Data Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA) in 2014 pushed all levels of government to open their data. In January, bipartisan support for the passage of the OPEN Government Data Act, which mandates “that the federal government’s data be made open and machine readable, when otherwise not prohibited by law,” clearly showed the momentum for using open data to hold governments accountable and empower citizens.

Though open data has seen the greatest push at the federal level, its greatest potential may lie at the local level, in projects like those of the city of Los Angeles, designed to encourage citizen participation in local affairs. Indeed, many local governments have found that when people have access to information once held only by government, they become more engaged citizens.

Across the country, cities and states are creating central repositories of public data and associated open data advisory councils, which allow residents to collaborate with local governments to identify new potential data sets and uses. Cities and states are also appointing Chief Data Officers, as the need to not only manage data, but also present it in consumable ways, becomes apparent. The effort at the local level to create infrastructure for open data has been met with a corresponding rise in citizen-initiated projects using the data to inform, change, advocate for and  build the local communities they want to see.

But for many local governments, the same question arises: where to start? Identifying which data sets to make public is a difficult task and  many cities begin the process by using Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request history as a proxy for open data demand. For others, crises spark the demand for open data.

In Flint, Michigan, many have pushed to open water quality data in order to analyze and identify issues that affect the community — and many more have insisted that other cities should follow suit to prevent the same thing from happening elsewhere. Local universities have become strong partners in the pursuit of open data and  have created collaborative initiatives like the Open Data Flint Project, which contains datasets like the Flint bottled water location map and the results of community health surveys.

Universities are just one part of the open data organizing landscape, though, as nonprofits have also used the tools to empower disenfranchised communities with policymaking know-how and data science skills. BetaNYC, for example, provides education to a wide range of individuals on how to leverage technology and data to improve access to services; specific BetaNYC classes teach attendees about how to analyze available 311-request data, manipulate public spreadsheets and pivot tables and  map New York’s Census information.

Though the process of opening data may seem like a difficult task for small local governments, the willingness of citizens, universities and  community organizations to fully engage with public data should be encouraging. Access to government datasets allows communities to hold their governments accountable and build informed arguments for what really matters to them in the public policy space, from quality of life to law enforcement and  more. Local governments who take advantage of increased citizen participation in shaping policies can gain a stronger sense of their impact and can be more certain that their work matches community desires. By embracing that spirit, they can truly claim the title of a government by the people, of the people and  for the people.

Afua Bruce is the director of Engineering for the Public Interest Technology program at New America and oversees projects where technologists work alongside nonprofits and governments to develop solutions in a new, human-centered way.