Becoming digital citizens: what we can do with open data

Thanks to everyone who joined us for a discussion on open data and the possibilities it offers for all of us to become more involved in our local government: more aware, more informed, and more engaged. The panelists were Kristin Szakos, Charlottesville City councilor, Lucas Ames, founder of Smart Cville, and Lucas Cioffi, senior software developer at Locus Health and founder of the Civic Tech Code School.

This summary pulls together the contributions of all panelists. Links to presentation videos below.

Lucas Ames provided a useful definition of what open data is (using the definition adopted by the State of California). Open data has two essential characteristics:

  1. It is “technically” open: it is provided in a machine readable-format (a standard data format, such as .csv, or perhaps an API); data sets are provided as full sets of data (although fields may be limited for privacy concerns, the data set is not curated or cherry-picked).
  2. It is legally open: you don’t have to ask permission to use it, remix it, or put it into a commercial application.

Leveraging open data is just one aspect of what is more broadly called “civic tech.” Lucas Cioffi gave us an example of each. An example of an open data success story: recently, a New Yorker used his city’s open data on parking tickets and discovered that the police were erroneously ticketing cars parked in legal spaces (certain curb cuts that had recently been made legal)—and based on his data, he got the city to stop.

Here’s an example of civic tech: a Savannah resident set up a website that allows people to pay their water bills online (for a small fee). While he is making some money, he is also providing a service to local residents that their local government does not provide.

As Lucas C. puts it: “We are all responsible for government. Your tax dollars pay for programs and projects, and they are done in your name.” Civic tech is a new, innovative way to contribute to your community.

This year, the City will begin to release open data. And, as Lucas C. told us, we are more empowered than ever to leverage this data to become civically involved: great tools are free or cheaper than ever. There are many ways (ranging from the eminently doable to the highly impractical) that you can get involved:

  • Start a side project (and keep your day job)
  • Start a meetup/host a hackathon
  • Join a non-profit
  • Join a civic tech startup
  • Start a non-profit
  • Found a civic tech startup

Lucas A. gave us some other examples of partnerships between citizens and governments. The Chicago Health Department asked local group to solve a problem: they had a website that listed locations where flu shots were being offered, but did not think anyone was taking advantage of it. Citizens took the data, overlaid it on a map, put it inside and app where users could filter the options (by days available, cost, etc.). It proved so successful that the city adopted it.

In Charlotte, SC, the local government decided to release all the data associated with a broad quality-of-life survey that they had done over a number of years. It turned out that this data was more meaningful than the basis of, say, a yearly report. All sorts of other local organizations could make use of the data: neighborhood associations and non-profits, for instance, could leverage them to focus their missions.

For Charlottesville City Councillor Kristin Szakos, open data and civic tech are all about enabling the local government to hear from more voices. Not everyone can make it to a city council meeting—and not because they don’t care, but because it can be logistically challenging. Szakos recognizes the potential of open data to transform (for the better) relationships between citizens and their elected representatives: transparency promotes trust and releasing what is public data by default unburdens staff from responding to individual FOIA requests.

In short, open government is about us working in collaboration with each other—at the local level. While the Obama administration put open data on the map, the movement is all grass roots. There are groups you can join to get involved and stay informed. Check out Code for America, which has chapters all over the country. And check out Lucas’ own contribution, dotdot.news, a new aggregation service.

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Charlottesville Women in Tech