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Beyond open data: Insights through analytics

The federal government is taking big steps to share information and make data more free and open. Thanks to legislation like the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, agencies are now required to post standardized spending data on the USASpending.gov site. Other initiatives, like the Government Publishing Office’s GovInfo.gov, let citizens use full-text searching and metadata to sift through decades of digitized content. It seems as if we are entering a new chapter of open data. But what, exactly can governments do with this data on hand? How do citizens and public officials make the most of this unprecedented level of access to information? 

Analytics are what allows government to use “data as a flashlight, not as a hammer,” according to "A Practical Guide to Analytics for Governments," recently produced by the team at the SAS Institute and published by Wiley.

The book celebrates information sharing and the wide range of data available on the municipal level in particular -- from smart streetlights that also collect info on pedestrian foot traffic to rail equipment outfitted with sensors so that repairs can be made as needed, rather than on a maintenance schedule. (An innovation that Washingtonians inconvenienced by D.C. Metro’s months of “SafeTrack” repairs might envy). Overlaying of municipal code enforcement and police activity data reveals unexpected correlations between property neglect and crime, and having studied algebra in high school is connected to markedly higher income achievement later in life.

“Armed with insights” from shared data, officials in Arizona's Pinal County used the strength of analytics to more effectively understand already-existing health data in a way that would better protect the public from heat stroke. Investigators were surprised to discover that analytics revealed the highest threat of heat-related illness was not found among the elderly -- as had been expected -- but instead, among the young people of this Arizona community.

Small agencies can benefit from analytics as much as larger ones.  The book’s authors make the case that smaller cities may be best positioned to take advantage of technology advances because there is “less infrastructure to retrofit.” Since only 300 U.S. cities have populations that exceed 100,000, they add, the opportunities for data-driven innovation are substantial.

State-level open-data success stories are also hailed, most especially the example of  North Carolina, which “opened its 2017 budget for citizen scrutiny” with a new visual analytics tool.

But more important than making data itself available, the authors argue, is recognizing the challenge of melding data into analytics. After all, they assert, “typical government IT projects are built in a siloed approach,” which means that while agencies have torrents of data, often not a drop is shared. Teachers are not given the opportunity to proactively provide remedial attention to students. Police don’t have background information to help them approach a suspect with either greater caution or more compassion.  The book also looks at applications in transportation, public health, child welfare, prescription drug abuse, fraud prevention, and it methodically lays out both the depth of missed opportunities and the possibility of a brighter future.

As government at every level updates its IT assets, the book warns CIOs that “[a]cquiring technology for technology’s sake … rarely achieves the expected outcome.” Instead, the book makes the case that the emphasis should be on “building an analytics-driven government” and leveraging data to “build stronger analytics capabilities.”

“A Practical Guide to Analytics for Government” lives up to its title and concludes with a specific suggested solution. Establishing an official center of analytics, the authors write, can help agencies create a keen awareness of the importance of “building common competency … [that] enhances government analytic success through shared experience.”

Some cities have begun to work in that direction, and the City of Boston’s Citywide Analytics Team and the New York City’s Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics are hailed for seeking “innovative ways to leverage data.”

Such efforts could even unite an otherwise polarized political community, the authors suggest, since “both Republicans and Democrats value opening the public’s business to citizens.” Indeed, they contend that during a time when the citizens increasingly distrust political leadership, “open data can . . . promote legitimacy.”

More importantly, though, the authors stress that governments at all levels should be “breaking down barriers to sharing and accessing information … to ensure frontline workers, management, and policymakers have the knowledge they need.”   After all, as Shawn P. McCarthy, research director of IDC Government Insights, is quoted as saying about this book, “in many ways, modern government is information.”

About the Author

Ben Berliner is an editorial fellow at FCW. He is a 2017 graduate of Kenyon College, and has interned at the Center for Responsive Politics and at Sunlight Foundation.

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