8 Ways To Open Up Civic Data So That People Actually Use It

The Knight Foundation just gave $3.2 million to organizations that are making public data more useful. These are our favorites.

Government has been one of the slowest sectors to embrace the Internet and open data, but it’s starting to happen. Incubators like Code for America are teaching entrepreneurs to develop civic-minded apps. And city governments in places like Chicago and San Francisco are warming up to open data standards. This week, the Knight Foundation announced the eight winners of the $3.2 million Knight News Challenge on Open Gov, a competition that asked entrants to design ways to make public data more helpful.

One of the most exciting projects is Open Gov for the Rest of Us, a project that gives residents of low-income Chicago neighborhoods the tools to ask for better data about foreclosure, immigration, crime, and schools. This isn’t just an app—it’s an entire engagement campaign for low-income parts of the city.

The campaign is using existing infrastructure in five "smart communities"—low income areas of Chicago that are getting increased digital access—to hold civic data trainings. It’s also pushing residents to think about what other kinds of open data tools they would like to see. Open Gov for the Rest of Us received $350,000.

Our other favorite winner is OpenCounter, a team that makes it easier for residents to navigate the tricky world of business permitting, which too often turns off burgeoning entrepreneurs. As the brief explains: "Whether it’s a startup, boutique or restaurant, OpenCounter helps to simplify this interaction with city government. It collects and sorts data on existing regulations while providing running totals of the costs and time involved in setting up shop."

The creators of the project are, not-so-coincidentally, Code for America fellows. They previously piloted the OpenCounter tool in Santa Cruz, California. The project scooped up $450,000 from the Knight Foundation.

Here are the rest of the winners, courtesy of a Knight Foundation press release:

Civic Insight: Providing up-to-date information on vacant properties so that communities can find ways to make tangible improvements to local spaces;

Outline.com: Launching a public policy simulator that helps people visualize the impact that public policies like health care reform and school budget changes might have on local economies and communities;

Oyez: Making state and appellate court documents freely available and useful to journalists, scholars and the public, by providing straightforward summaries of decisions, free audio recordings and more;

Procur.io: Making government contract bidding more transparent by simplifying the way smaller companies bid on government work;

GitMachines: Supporting government innovation by creating tools and servers that meet government regulations, so that developers can easily build and adopt new technology;

Plan in a Box: Making it easier to discover information about local planning projects, by creating a tool that governments and contractors can use to easily create websites with updates that also allow public input into the process.

Knight Foundation

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  • Jessica Blaine

    Open data policies are extremely important and beneficial to the public, and should be encouraged and supported; however, just as this article points out, opening up the data is really just the first step. The key is not only to make more data available, but to make it easily accessible as well. There is already a wealth of information out there that could be providing some valuable insights to those looking to make positive changes in their communities; however, it is incredibly time-consuming to gather for analysis. It is distributed in hundreds of different formats (if it is even distributed at all) and is often buried throughout thousands of obscure sources and databases. This inaccessibility means that only those with years of training in data collection and analysis will be able to find it, let alone put it to good use. Even sources such as the Census Bureau's American Fact Finder, which was developed for easy navigation of census data, are incredibly difficult and time-consuming to utilize.I fully support the idea of opening data up and encouraging consistent data reporting at local city and municipality levels. Opening the data will mean that more entrepreneurs like those listed above, as well as others such as 360-Public.com, who developed free web tools that makes open community data easier to access and analyze,  will start to emerge and (hopefully) empower government leaders/decision-makers, as well as the general public, to become more engaged and improve the quality of life in their communities.We can't stop there though. We have to remember that data is only as good as the insights it provides, and unless we make sure it is distributed in a format that is both easily accessible and practical, there isn't much chance of it being put to good use.