Already Beyond the Data Portal

I was inspired by a recent piece by the wonderful @jedsundwall on his gov3.0 blog about the need to be going beyond data portals (much like a recent book I contributed too focuses on BeyondTransparency, shameless plug yes).

Jed totally hits it with this assessment of a growing attitude in local government towards just getting the data out:

It’s time to acknowledge that data is not made useful simply by making it available online. As we work to make data open and available, we also need to train people who can help make it accessible and useful.

In cities locally and globally the concept of open data is being pitched by vendors as a simple, turnkey thing they purchase and simply check it off their list of good government tasks.  Not enough cities have realized that this huge data resource is an amazingly underutilized and under-leveraged resource for them. In Oakland, so much of the data being published leaves much to be desired and leads to dozens of new questions about the source, quality, meaning and completeness of these data, but the city isn’t really embracing this as a way to engage the community and to see these data reach more of their potential.

Jed goes on to suggest an alternative reality where data support exists side by side with the data portals:

You’re doing your research, but you’ve heard of the San Diego Regional Data Library. You go to its website and see that you can email, call, or chat online with a data librarian who can help you find the information you need. You call the library and speak with a librarian who tells you that the data you need is provided by the county rather than the city. You also learn about datasets available from California’s Department of Transportation, a non-profit called BikeSD, Data.gov and some other data from the city that hasn’t been opened up yet.

This is where my two worlds collide. The #opendata & #opengov world is leading and pushing from a certain position, mostly not connected to the existing community research, indicator and data world and the community indicators world has been slow in embracing this brave new world of easy access to data.  We need to get along, to understand each others positions and intentions and we can really make this #datadriven world matter for our communities.

The concept of a data library is very similar to what groups like Urban Strategies Council have been doing for 15 years with our InfoAlamedaCounty.org project.  For a long time we’ve seen the need to provide communities with reliable research and data to drive action and we’ve struggled to get access to data for this entire time. 

We formed the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership in 1992 with the Urban Institute to help build the field nationally to help empower more communities in just this way- we have a mandate to publish data and make usable, actionable information to communities equally. Our partner organizations in 37 cities have local knowledge and regional knowledge, expertise in community development, reentry, public safety, economic development, education and health, so we’re able to not just provide raw and improved data, we’re able to be an active, responsive voice in or communities to make more data actionable.

Many NNIP partners are starting to embrace the open data world and this is a powerful recipe for a data driven future that is focused on equity in our cities- most NNIP partners have a social mission as opposed to just doing data in a cold, calculated way.  But the unfortunate truth is that as our cities are becoming more data rich, many NNIP partners are facing declining funding to help support community uses of data.  It would be a mistake for funders to largely lose interest in community data intermediaries (not a sexy concept) in the excitement over open data, because none of these data become actionable and meaningful without serious support, engagement and use.

The data library is a great concept, and our experience in Oakland and many other cities says there’s huge need and value for such an entity.  Our cities can themselves play some part by being more engaged through their open data resources, but that’s never going to be enough, just like Chicago has fantastic staff who engage, there’s still a role for the Smart Chicago Collaborative effort to bring that power out to communities across the city.

More data, more engagement, more power to the people?

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