5 Government Processes Replaced by Open Data

March 6, 2014 1:36 pm PST | Effective Governing

Open data promises to put public information to work, mostly through apps for easier parking, permitting, healthcare access, and more. What does all of this convenience mean for those working in government? For many government agencies, embracing open data has led to the automation of processes that once consumed thousands of staff hours and millions of tax dollars. The following is a quick tour of some of the processes that open data replaces.

1. Budget Reporting

Raleigh, North Carolina knows that citizens will ask for information about how tax dollars are spent. That is why you can go to its open data portal, https://data.raleighnc.gov/, and find not only budget data in dynamic spreadsheets for the current and past fiscal years, the City also offers 140 visualizations of the data, addressing typical questions and requests for information from citizens. And, these charts and graphs are automatically updated anytime the budget numbers change.

“[Open data is] a productivity tool for us so we don’t have to have a human being at the end of every question or every request for information,” says Gail Roper, Chief Information and Community Relations Officer for Raleigh. “It benefits the taxpayers that we’re not having to provide staffing at a level we’ve had to in the past because of the technology.”

Other cities are either developing or already using real-time budgeting apps, like New York City’s ”Checkbook NYC 2.0” application or Boston’s “CheckBook Explorer.”

2. FOIA Requests

Chicago’s open data program pre-dates the majority of those in the U.S., and has benefited from strong leadership support from Mayor Rahm Emanuel. As a result, it has had the opportunity to not only streamline processes, but measure the results.

In a recent report “Open Data Annual Report 2013,” the City of Chicago announced that over a nine month period, its Department of Public Health (CDPH) has experienced a 65% drop in the number Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for environmental records by making the data available on the City’s open data portal. Though the exact numbers of staff hours and resources saved was not reported, this shift is clearly a time and money saver.

Chicago’s report goes on to state that it will continue to study which data is most often requested via FOIA and work to place those datasets on the City’s open data portal, https://data.cityofchicago.org/.

3. Campaign Finance Reporting

Before the City and County of San Francisco (CCSF) launched an open data portal in 2012, its leadership promoted the idea as a “one-stop destination for all approved City data.” The CCSF Ethics Commission embraced this idea by uploading automatically, nightly, all campaign finance information it received from candidates leading up to its fall 2012 elections.

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Read more about CCSF Ethics Commission’s automation of campaign finance data sharing.
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Steven Massey, Information Technology Officer for the CCSF Ethics Commission, not only worked to move all campaign finance data on to the SFCC portal, https://data.sfgov.org/, he had it then automatically publish to user-friendly, embedded charts on sfethics.org.

“We’ve gotten really good feedback from the community about these charts, since they are much easier to read than our PDF financial reports. Now, when people call in, you direct them to the site and you’re done,” says Massey. Prior to posting the data regularly, Massey says the campaign finance data was most valuable to reporters and made it into the newspaper quite a bit. Now it’s in demand from a broader audience of citizens, like students and researchers.

4. Snow Plow Updates

What annual event can people in Chicago most rely upon? The arrival of winter snow storms. This chilly reality makes driving extra hazardous until snow plows appear. Since citizens take such a great interest in snow plows and their progress, the City decided to field fewer phone calls and feed real-time snow plow location updates through their open data portal to a web and mobile application.

Chicago has a page on its open data portal called “Chicago Shovels” with a variety of data-driven features, like information about a mobile app for taxi sharing called “Taxi Share Chicago” and an app for finding food and shelter called “iFinditChicago.”

Local civic hacking leader Derek Eder, owner of civic app and data visualization company DataMade, has even created his own snow plow tracking application using the City’s data. “We have this website we created called ClearStreets, which gathers GPS data from the City about snow plows. We plot the path of where plows have been,” Eder explains. “You can find out if your street has been plowed yet and if so, when.”

5. Trademark Data Reporting

Peter Threlkel, Director of the Corporation Division for the Oregon Secretary of State, needed a way to post data from Oregon’s small-scale trademark program online in a searchable database. As he says, “People used to have to call us or submit a public records request and every month we’d give them a copy of the database and all the images that we had on CD-ROM.” Threlkel wanted a more automated approach.

He looked at some custom solutions from IT vendors, and one bid he received proposed that the state build a one-off, customized $500,000 system. That approach was too expensive for such a small program. Fortunately, he realized that the State’s open data portal could host and serve the information. As a result, the database is now online, up-to-date, API-enabled, and easily searchable, holding trademark data dating back to 1920, with Tiffany & Co.

Limitless Possibilities for Automation and Efficiency

Since government agencies hold so much useful information – permit requests, tax revenue numbers, public pool schedules, school test scores, crime statistics, public parking prices, and more – millions of citizens seek out information from them every year. Open data has created the opportunity to pull that process away from the phone or static PDF and automate it. Citizens are empowered to use the data while staff are free to work on other tasks and process improvements.

What other processes have been or should be replaced by open data? Send us your stories to blog@socrata.com or leave a comment below.

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