Cities show how to make open data usable

Government agencies have no shortage of shareable data., the open-data clearinghouse that launched in May 2009, had more than 147,331 datasets as of mid-July, and state and local governments are joining federal agencies in releasing ever-broader arrays of information.

The challenge, however, remains making all that data usable. Obama administration officials like to talk about how the government’s weather data supports forecasting and analysis that support businesses and help Americans every day. But relatively few datasets do more than just sit there, and fewer still are truly accessible for the average person.

At the federal level, that’s often because agency missions do not directly affect citizens the way that local governments do. Nevertheless, every agency has customers and communities of interest, and there are lessons feds can learn from how cities are sharing their data with the public.

One such model is Citygram. The app links to a city’s open-data platform and sends subscribers a weekly text or email message about selected activities in their neighborhoods. Charlotte officials worked closely with Code for America fellows to develop the software, and the app launched in December 2014 in that city and in Lexington, Ky.

Three other cities – New York, Seattle, and San Francisco – have since joined, and Orlando, Fla.; Honolulu; the Research Triangle area of North Carolina; and Montgomery County, Md., are considering doing so.

Citygram “takes open data and transforms it, curates it and translates it into human speech,” said Twyla McDermott, Charlotte’s corporate IT program manager. “People want to know what’s happening around them.”

Demonstrating real-world utility

People in the participating cities can go to, select their city and choose topics of interest (such as pending rezonings or new business locations). Then they enter their address and a radius to consider “nearby” and finally select either text or email for their weekly notifications.

Any city government can use the technology, which is open source and freely available on GitHub. San Francisco put its own unique spin on the app by allowing subscribers to sign up for notifications on tree plantings. With Citygram NYC, New Yorkers can find information on vehicle collisions within a radius of up to 4 miles. In Charlotte, topics include traffic accidents, historic district reviews and development and rezoning plans. Pew chart on open dataYet even with that user-friendly approach, the number of participants has been low. McDermott said Charlotte’s app had 200 subscribers as of June 9 – out of a city of roughly 800,000 people. She said officials plan to raise awareness about the app’s features and eventually add notifications for other activities that are likely to attract greater interest, such as street closures, capital projects, water main information and 311 services.

There are bigger signs that Americans have not fully bought into open data’s value. According to a Pew Research Center survey released in April, only 53 percent of respondents said open data makes government officials more accountable to the public, 49 percent said it improves the quality of government services, and 48 percent said it allows citizens to have more of an impact on government affairs.

Jim Van Fleet, a Code for America fellow in Charlotte, said demonstrating real-world utility is one of the big reasons to be positive about Citygram. “I think it’s one of [the best], if not the best, representations of the power of local open data,” he said.

He added that the app also encourages city governments to keep their data current to ensure that “relevant, accurate information is placed in citizens’ hands.”

The demand for more

A Lexington official said Citygram has been a success. “People are happy to not have to call the city about what’s being done on their street,” said Jonathan Hollinger, senior administrative officer at the city’s Department of Planning, Preservation and Development. “They can get that information proactively.”

Lexington subscribers receive notifications about code complaints, building permits and foreclosure sales. But that might just be the tip of the iceberg. Officials are looking into adding alerts when utility companies are working on particular streets and expanding the feature on code complaints to include more detail beyond a simple notification.

However, some aspects of code enforcement, such as photos of houses or other private property, probably won’t be available on the app. “I would love to have every bit of information out there, but it’s a fine line between what’s open data and what’s public record,” Hollinger said.

Lexington also has a Housing Dashboard app that lets users explore housing trends, such as property values and foreclosures. City officials would like to add more census data to the app to help small companies decide where to locate their businesses.

Hollinger said Lexington residents are already asking for text and email notifications on more topics.

“As soon as you flip the switch on letting the flow of information out, people want more, which is healthy for government,” he said.

This article originally appeared in FCW, a sister brand to GCN. 

About the Author

Bianca Spinosa is an Editorial Fellow at FCW.

Spinosa covers a variety of federal technology news for FCW including workforce development, women in tech, and the intersection of start-ups and agencies. Prior to joining FCW, she was a TV journalist for more than six years, reporting local news in Virginia, Kentucky, and North Carolina. Spinosa is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Writing at George Mason University, where she also teaches composition. She earned her B.A. from the University of Virginia.

Click here for previous articles by Spinosa, or connect with her on Twitter: @BSpinosa.


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