An Outstanding Citizen Experience

Curating the Data Experience

Remember the early days of the Web, when an animated GIF was the height of human creativity online? We have come a long way since then towards making the Web interactive and user-friendly.

The same is happening to data on the Web. We’re quickly moving from downloading files as the default way to share data online, to a consumer-friendly experience that makes public data easily accessible and usable.

Why is the experience important? Because citizens are already used to getting information online without ever thinking of it as data. The goal is to give them the same experience with government data.

Rethinking the Citizen Experience

The catalog is no longer the end-all-and-be-all of the open data experience. Innovators are already building the next version of interfaces for citizens that truly democratize access to data. They’re doing it in several ways.

From catalog to information portal

The evolution of the open data experience began with a change to the open data portal, commonly known as the “catalog.”

Early catalog sites were searchable collections of downloadable datasets. They are now evolving into information portals that organize the data and curate the experience for end-users in order to support the mission of the organization as a whole, or the data project in particular.

  • The City University of New York – Lehman College

    “The goal of Lehman Community Connect is to enable students, faculty, researchers, and the public to participate in the community by facilitating exploration and the development of creative applications. We hope that this new site fosters a “digital public square” for collaborative discovery that enriches both classroom experiences and service initiatives.”

  • World Bank Finances

    “The goal of this website is to make data related to the Bank’s financials available to everybody in a social, interactive, visually compelling, and machine readable format. The data covers portions of the Bank’s investments, assets it manages on behalf of global funds, and the Bank’s own financial statements.”

  • NYC Open Data

    “NYC Open Data makes the wealth of public data generated by various New York City agencies and other City organizations available for public use. As part of an initiative to improve the accessibility, transparency, and accountability of City government, this catalog offers access to a repository of government-produced, machine-readable data sets.”

From File Downloads to Useful Visualizations

It used to be that data was presented in a one-version, downloadable file. Now, it’s easy to turn that data into an interactive online table, a map or a chart. What’s more, end-users can contextualize the data they’re interested in, based on their own unique situation and needs.

Let’s use an example to illustrate how you can create valuable, visual resources out of your data, with little effort. We will use one data set (victim-based crimes in the city of Baltimore) and show different ways to visualize the same data using four different contextual representations.

The source: a good, old spreadsheet

This is what the raw data looks like once it’s downloaded to a user’s desktop. Only 16 percent of people find this useful, according to Socrata’s Benchmark Study. Everyone else prefers an interactive Web experience of one kind or another. You can see the source data set here.

First representation: interactive online table

In this format, open data is explorable online. Users can search, filter, and sort the data based on what’s important to them, without downloading it to their desktop. They can also choose the best way to view the data on their screens. In this case, the screenshot shows a filter based on “Crime Date.”

Second representation: crimes by type ‘roll-up’

In this more advanced format, the user is interested in finding out “what are the most common types of crimes?” This is yet another layer of context that the base view did not provide.

Third representation: crimes by type ‘tree map’

This visualization is called a tree map. It shows a visual representation of the roll-up created in the second view. The user, without any effort, can quickly see which types of victim-based crimes are most common.

Fourth representation: map of crimes in ‘my neighborhood’

This map-based visualization is probably what most people would find useful: crimes by neighborhood. The data is represented in a familiar, map-based interface that everyone can easily relate to. Check out Socrata’s Pinterest page of customer visualizations.

Say It With Maps!

Some of the most useful data is location-based information. People want information about where they live, and to be able to contextualize any location-based data according to where they are.

Find anything with a simple point map

Anytime you have location-based data (data with addresses), you can make it useful and accessible with an interactive, online map. Gone are the days when you had to go to your GIS department to create and publish a simple map.

Here is a great example of a museums map, from Regione Lombardia, in Italy.

You can go from a simple map to a more curated experience that gives your users more interactivity. For example, you could include a guided browsing experience and helpful icons, like this “Find It Fast!” map of Cook County public facilities.

Read our Socrata blog post: “From Spreadsheets to Streets: How to Make a Map with Your Data.”

What about polygon-based data?

Some geospatial data does not fit neatly as points on a map. It is more complex than that and usually consists of lines, or polygons, that describe shapes. These could be waterways, transit lines, or in the case of New Orleans, road closures during the Super Bowl.

This highly-valuable data used to be shared as downloadable Shapefiles and KML files. If you don’t know what these are, you’re not alone. They are part of a class of geospatial data that GIS professionals specialize in. However, since most people are not GIS experts, this kind of data should be converted into simple online maps that everyone already knows how to use.

Another great example of converting this valuable GIS data into accessible online maps is this “Building Footprint” map from the city of Baltimore.

How quickly can these maps be created? Find out. Watch this video about Socrata’s map-building tool called Mondara.

Richer Visual Context? Try Map Mashups

Often, the most useful map is one where two datasets are layered on top of each other. This technology used to be the exclusive domain of expert developers. But, since open data is all about making the data experience consumer-friendly, this capability is now available to anyone.

First example: Hurricane Sandy shelters and evacuation zones

Layering evacuation zones, which are the grey polygons in the map, with the location of storm shelters, creates a very useful map for people. They can locate where they live, determine if it’s in an evacuation zone, and find their nearest shelter.

Second example: finding a preschool near the metro line

What if busy parents are looking for a preschool for her child and one of their selection criteria is proximity to the metro line they takes to work every day, for easy drop-off and pick-up? How would they go about finding suitable childcare facilities? A map mashup that superimposes the location of schools (blue dots) on top of the transit lines helps the parents make that decision with a simple visual inspection.

The “App-ification” of Data

Not all data is created equal. Some data like food safety, product recalls, location of government services, crimes in neighborhoods, bus schedules, or 311 information are valuable to us on a day-to-day basis and should be part of our digital lives 24/7.

One way to put your data to work to improve the quality of life for constituents is to deliver that data via purpose-built, Web and mobile apps. Check out the Socrata Apps Marketplace for a selection of civic apps.

A few years ago, these apps were hard to come by. Now they’re readily available as reusable open source code, consumer apps on app stores, or commercial, ready-to-deploy cloud apps.

First example: Somerville’s 311 Explorer

Developed by Socrata, this simple app provides residents with a self-service, interactive interface to find out what’s going on in their neighborhoods. They can find out the status on everything from roadwork to animal control service requests, in addition to being able to check the status of their own service requests.

Explore the app

Second example: Open City apps

Like many active civic developer communities around the world, Open City is a group of volunteers that create apps with open data to improve transparency and citizen understanding of government. They are based in Chicago. Their apps feature everything from visualizing lobbyist activity to exploring abandoned buildings.

Explore the app

Third example: Open Checkbook Explorer

Every government organization in the world is looking for ways to improve transparency. In the old days, it was adequate to create a PDF report once a year to give an aggregate snapshot of financial transparency data like budget and expenditures. This static format fails to give people access to details, and does not allow them to answer their questions quickly and easily.

Apps like Boston’s Open Checkbook Explorer changed that paradigm. It is now easy to provide all the details people are looking for, right down to the checkbook-level data, in a consumer-friendly interface. Best of all, these apps are as easy to deploy as they are to maintain, and always provide up-to-date information.

Explore the app

Taking the Experience Mobile

Constituents need anywhere, anytime access to the information they use in their daily lives. Mobile access is as necessary as the Web is. How do you give it to them?

Open data APIs, which are the programmatic interfaces to data, allow you to reuse the same data assets to create mobile interfaces more quickly and cost-effectively than ever. Other tools, like Socrata DataSlate and mobile software development kits (SDKs), give your IT department the capabilities they need to optimize the experience for mobile access, without reinventing the entire applications stack. Get more resources at the Socrata Developer Portal.

Read the case study to learn more about how King County leveraged open data during the 2012 elections.

First example: mobile election results in King County, Washington.

When King County Elections surveyed voters on features they wanted in the next election, mobile elections results topped the list. So, when King County won a grant to improve accessibility to elections information, they used the money to create a mobile-friendly website for election results, a map of ballot dropoff locations and more.

The response was outstanding. Hundreds of thousands visited the site on election night and enjoyed a flawless experience thanks to cloud-based technologies that could handle the influx of traffic.

Learn more

Second example: World Bank finances

The World Bank Finances group created an outstanding mobile experience for users with two amazing apps, one for Android and the other for iOS. Their goal is to enable people around the world to get up-to-date financial snapshots of the World Bank’s activities in their local communities.

Their apps feature easy navigation through map and list views. Users can explore the details of a country’s donor and/or beneficiary portfolios — including financial instruments, contracts, and project information and locations.

Key Features:

  • Offered in 7 languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese)
  • “Nearby” (GPS enabled to display development projects around you – zoom in for more specific location info)
  • “Connect” (Share, start, and follow conversations through social media networks, email, and SMS)
  • “Follow” (Receive updates on countries, projects, and financial instruments of interest)
  • “Feedback” (Provide feedback on data accuracy and potential fraud or corruption)

Check out these World Bank Finances apps on Android and iOS.