ACT Goes from Spreadsheets to Interactive Maps in Minutes

Customer: Australian Capital Territory (ACT

In November 2011, Katy Gallagher, Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), proclaimed that open data would be an important pillar of her administration. With help from Socrata, ACT has turned her vision into a vital initiative—one that is fundamentally changing the way ACT operates internally, shares information, and interacts with the public at large.

Launching open data in the land down under

In her 2011 announcement, Chief Minister Katy Gallagher not only promoted making non-personal public data freely available, she highlighted the need to invest in the technology infrastructure to make this possible. She wanted a system that allowed for quick uploading of a variety of data file types, and full access to the data for all citizens, particularly through application programming interfaces (APIs).

Gallagher instructed staff members from ACT’s Innovation and Planning Office to start researching the organization’s options. This set into motion a multi-month quest for a data management and publishing platform that would enable all nine ACT directorates to upload data sets to a centralized web portal and integrate them with existing website content. ACT also wanted the ability to render geospatially-tagged information on interactive online maps. By offering mapping functionality on its public website, ACT hoped to provide constituents with a powerful tool for better understanding statistical data.

As the Director of IT Services at ACT, Michael D’Aprix led the organization’s search for an open data solution. “As we conducted our evaluation, we definitely had a core set of technical requirements in mind, like the ability to automatically embed the data sets into our website and provide robust filtering and visualization tools,” says D’Aprix. “But above all else, we knew that, if we were going to be successful in getting the data owners within the various directorates to actively participate in this initiative, the solution had to be simple—even enjoyable—to use.”

“The best open data site in Australia”

After thoroughly investigating the market, D’Aprix and others weighed the option of publishing an open data catalog versus launching an open data platform. In the summer of 2012, ACT chose to implement the Socrata Open Data platform. “The final decision was actually quite an easy one to make,” says D’Aprix. “From the start, our main goal was to initiate a pilot project to explore the business value of open data, not to learn how to run the technology behind an open data solution. It was clear that by choosing Socrata, we could offer more ways for citizens to interact with our data. By contrast, we knew that if we went with a simple data catalog system, we would have to build a lot of the additional functionality ourselves. And we didn’t have the time, the resources, or the inclination to go in that direction.”

ACT launched its Socrata-powered public data portal, called dataACT, in September 2012. The site immediately caught the attention of many in the open data community. A writer for GovLoop, one of the largest online government knowledge networks with more than 60,000 members, called dataACT “…the best open data site in Australia.” ACT Chief Minister Gallagher heralded the launch of the site as a significant step toward improving government transparency and accountability, stating: “This website will make information the ACT Government holds readily available to anyone interested in the work of the ACT Government.”

During the 12-month period from September 2012 to September 2013, ACT aggregated and published 35 data sets to the dataACT site. These include notices from the ACT Planning and Land Authority, Freedom of Information summaries, and official ACT population projections spanning more than four decades. The site also features a number of charts and maps that enable users to quickly visualize the location of public resources, from schools to parks, and more.

From spreadsheet to interactive map in three minutes

One of the features of the Socrata solution that ACT particularly appreciates is how easy it is for non-technical users to transform raw data into highly contextualized information. Once published to the dataACT site, users can filter and analyze the data in a variety of ways with a few simple clicks. Just as fluidly, they can share the original data sets, or any customized view of that information by using the platform’s built-in social networking tools.

Not long after ACT deployed the solution, D’Aprix and others witnessed a compelling demonstration of the ease-of-use of the Socrata platform. With colleagues looking on, a member of the ACT procurement office volunteered for a spontaneous training exercise. She proceeded to upload a spreadsheet containing the location and current cost assessment for infrastructure projects underway throughout the territory.

She then clicked the “visualize” tab on the dataACT site and selected the point map option from menu of plot types. Seconds later, she and her co-workers watched as a richly detailed, interactive map rendered on the screen. “People in the room could instantly see a bright red swath on the map along the eastern edge of the territory,” says D’Aprix. “Somebody chimed in, ‘Hey, that’s where the new freeway is being constructed.’ This exercise validated for all of us that the Socrata platform packages really powerful, useful technology in an interface that is completely intuitive and simple to learn.”

Unlocking innovation—inside and out

For ACT, the ability to quickly aggregate, publish, and share the information it already maintains has unlocked new opportunities for collaboration—both among other ACT agencies and with external organizations.

“A key discovery on our open data journey has been that we can use the Socrata platform to not only provide the public with a window into our operations, but also to break down the boundaries that prevent efficient information sharing between different ACT departments,” says Chris Tully, Director of Innovation and Planning at ACT. “With the Socrata solution, we can take a holistic approach to data transparency to stimulate innovation inside and outside of our organization. And we’ve just begun to scratch the surface in terms of what we can do with the platform. We’re very excited to take the next step.”