The Next Open Data Movement


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Illustration by Ben Berkowitz

A version of this essay was originally published on the SeeClickFix channel on Medium.

Picture a classroom where the teacher presents their information, but the students are not invited to ask questions or present their opinion. Attendance is not mandatory. Now picture the classroom in its fourth week. There’s a teacher standing in an empty classroom, right?

Over the past seven years the White House has made accessible much of the data inside federal agencies. Opening up troves of government data has been a crucial first step in providing accountability and accessibility at the top level of government. The open data effort has been fueled in part by advocacy efforts from within and without government. Sometimes it has been collaboration that has moved the ball forward and sometimes it has been outside unwelcomed pressure. There have been lively debates on which method is more effective. Movement leaders like John Wonderlich and Tom Steinberg have recently debated whether collaboration or gate crashing is the best approach. There is a general sentiment that as open data advocates we have fallen short of our expectations.

I take the stance that we have done a pretty good job at accessing and sharing previously inaccessible government data. Our shortcoming, and a huge opportunity at the federal level, is in the sharing of citizen data. Specifically the requesting of services from the federal government. By adding layers of transparency, feedback loops, and more engaging front-ends to the federal government we can popularize the open data movement.

The success of the open data movement at the local level can best be measured in the number of citizens who interact with and create the open data but do not necessarily consider themselves advocates for open data. Take the millions of people who have used transparent service request platforms like SeeClickFix and Connected Bits as examples. Most of the users of those platforms are not even familiar with the term open data, but they are creating it and making use of it.

At the federal level we needs to focus our efforts on the services that everyday citizens interact with. For most people government exists to serve their individual needs and the needs of their individual communities. They have little interest in budgeting, procurement, or overall performance.

The next open data movement needs to be about making more ways for citizens to be open with our government now that our government is more open with its citizens. In helping more citizens be open with their government we will make the open data movement a popular movement protected by collective self interest. Early advocates, including myself, won’t have to worry about failing as our efforts will have provided tangible benefit to a substantially larger audience. Through the persistent use of open data services the larger audience will assure the endurance of open data.

Act Two — Step One

We need a data standard for open communication between citizens and the federal government. Good news: We already have one at the local level. This is what part two of the federal open data movement should look like.

In 2009, SeeClickFix helped create Open311 with partners from around the world. Open311 is a read/write API that makes it easy for government to listen to residents and residents to listen to government. If a resident reports a pothole or asks for any service via the Open311 API, that service request is delivered to local government in a transparent and actionable data format which promotes constructive feedback loops and holistic and measurable results. SeeClickFix is a platform that has enabled this standard for nearly 300 cities and has documented nearly 2.5 million public service requests engaging millions of citizens. This is just one private company helping local government to provide service. The next phase of the federal data movement needs to look at how the Open311 standard can be applied to all federal services.

Act Two — Step Two

We need to pick some low hanging fruit that would benefit from these services. At the local level SeeClickFix was first used for public works-related issues but as of late it has been used by police departments and local veteran’s affairs offices. Below are some suggestions for agencies that could be servicing the potholes of the federal government. All of these agencies could benefit from a standardized, machine-readable way of listening to its constituents.

HUD

In New Haven, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently failed the residents of Church Street South, a large public housing community that plummeted to a failing score, with 512 life-threatening violations, in only a year after a mostly positive review. The complex was then slated to be demolished. If you’re looking for the road to hell and its good intentions, look no further than Church Street South and all of its cousins scattered around urban America. Roof leaks, water supply leaks, and sewage leaks caused untenable conditions to the point of demolition. Long before demolition, those leaks caused mold which contributed to asthma and other illness in a community with the highest asthma rates in the country. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) has been working to create legislation that would require mold to be part of the REAC guidelines for HUD. These guideline mandate reporting processes for certain types of maintenance requests. SeeClickFix has recently started working with the New Haven Housing Authority which also follows these mandates for maintenance and repair.

One way to make sure that a Church Street South crisis never happens again is mandating a transparent reporting process via the Open311 standard. Imagine a world where every public housing tenant, their advocates and the folks that maintain the properties had a constructive and engaging way to document problems in their building. They could take photos of the problem with their smartphones, submit a request or call in a complaint to a service desk, and their communication would be actionable for the local maintenance crews and accessible to HUD and the public for accountability and oversight. If a system like SeeClickFix had been mandated at Church Street South the building might never have had to be demolished. With public visibility into the interior of the building through photos taken by tenants, it would have been politically impossible for the blight to continue and the tenants might still be able to live there comfortably.

FEMA

During Hurricane Sandy, volunteers in Crisfield, MD, leveraged SeeClickFix to document and triage all of the flooding, power outages, and downed trees in advance of FEMA on the ground. This was a grassroots effort to engage with the federal government and help out neighbors. Similar groups have leveraged Ushahidi in natural disasters like the Haiti earthquake. If FEMA had a system for receiving these complaints in a standardized way platforms like Twitter, Facebook, SeeClickFix and the next hot civic technology or social application would be able to inform the government constructively while doing what they do best—engage humans. And these efforts would not be novel every time a disaster occurred. FEMA would know that they had a way of triaging the crisis by leveraging people on the ground, and people on the ground would feel less isolated in times of need. Further, the transparent nature of reporting to authorities has the benefit of informing neighbors who can help as well. Check out Snowcrew for an example of a volunteer platform that leverages Open311.

National Parks Service

The National Parks Service has roughly 15,000 employees to monitor and maintain it’s 84.4 million acres. There is no way to watch and maintain all of those trails with so few employees. The Parks Service has always relied on volunteers. The 275 million people who visit every year could be the eyes of the department and even better some of them could be the hands where only volunteerism could reach, as Brianne Fisher suggested in a Civicist piece earlier this year. Imagine walking on a trail and you see a dumped mattress, chemicals leaking into a stream, or a tree down on a trail. With the Open311 standard in place and an application like SeeClickFix you could quickly document the incident and alert National Parks, the EPA, or a crew of volunteers who were using a tool like SeeClickFix to watch and receive alerts on the geography of the trail that they monitored.

Department of Labor

The Department of Labor oversees the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) as well as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSH). WHD is responsible for protecting workers from wage theft, enforcing minimum wage requirements, and making sure that other workplace standards for equitable pay are in place. OSHA is responsible for enforcing safe work environments. Both DOL and OSHA take complaints from citizens that could be made more accessible to the public through interfaces that encourage collaboration and enforcement at the local level. Take this issue from SeeClickFix as example:

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At SeeClickFix we are currently engaged in conversations with DOL about how we might partner together in collaboration with the Worker’s Lab. A requirement for the Open311 standard at DOL would go along way towards helping these partnerships realize returns for citizens immediately.

EPA

From air quality monitoring to water source protection, the EPA already has standards in place for monitoring water run-off through tools like MS-4 permits, and there are air quality monitoring stations every couple of miles in urban areas. Imagine how much more granular the data would be for government if citizens were reporting on air quality and water contamination the way they are reporting potholes in Detroit.

We have had a few conversations with folks at EPA like Ethan McMahon who have had interest in how a localized reporting platform could better inform the efforts of the EPA. Let’s move these conversations to the forefront of the work at the EPA and let’s make sure that state agencies are engaged as well.

GSA and the U.S. Military

The General Services Administration manages all federal buildings. Ten of thousands of them around the country. The U.S. Military operates bases all around the country and all over the world. While it has been previously floated that Open311 could apply to services on federal buildings it has yet to come to fruition. Shouldn’t President Obama be able to report that leaky toilet in the Oval with his smart phone?

CDC and Red Cross

What if residents around the country could report the spread of infections disease uniformly and ubiquitously to the federal government while exposing the data to academics and global health experts? This currently happens at some level but a standard reporting process for communicating with the federal government could only make this dataset more robust and actionable.

. . .

I know I sound like a hammer with a handful of nails. All of these examples have solutions that could be solved partially by SeeClickFix. And I know that the open data movement is bigger than service. That said, we have spent a lot of time on freeing data that already exists in government. I think we should focus our efforts on creating more new data. And applying an open data standard for federal service requests would likely go far beyond what I have outlined above. Where else is this conversation happening and where else could it be happening? I want the next open data movement in the federal government to be about data that is being shared with the government as opposed to the other way around.

Ben Berkowitz is the founder and CEO of SeeClickFix.