Data Morality: Why Cities Must Adopt Open Data Policies

Coda Rayo-Garza, M.A., NLC San Antonio

We’ve reached a critical phase within the realm of big data and how our government uses it (or doesn’t). The Trump Administration and its creation of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity has requested that each state hand over voter data including: names, addresses, birth dates, last four digits of social security, voting history, felony convictions and more. What responsibility do states have to comply with this request? Some states, such as Texas, are only turning over publicly available data. Other states, such as Pennsylvania, have flat out denied the commission’s request. How can we ensure our rights and privacy are not violated, all the while maintain transparency in government?

The dynamics around data and the federal government bring into question the role that municipalities play in open data. Establishing open data policies is a clear path to ensure that local municipalities understand the importance of government transparency, efficiency and equity in data.

Why Data?

Cities conduct polls all the time. Around budget time, we are often asked to identify what our priorities are for our City. “Where do you want the City to focus its spending on?”. Often times the responses are related to infrastructure (sidewalks, crosswalks, streets, drainage), animal services, code compliance, libraries and more. How do we know that budget priorities are based on need? How can we know that people who respond to surveys represent the diversity of a community?

If collected, an entity should be able to know how truly equitable their data is and whether their data gathering practices actually reflect the community and their preferences. Think for a second about the feedback that city and state bureaucracies collect and deliver to elected officials. How often do you respond to surveys from your representatives or your city government? I can say that in my family, we respond to surveys we receive from our state representative about legislative priorities and our city survey around budget preferences. As a middle-class family living on the Northwest side of my town, I am aware of certain privileges that my family has that may potentially skew survey results. For example, my priorities may be for more parks, while a family on an older side of town may prioritize sidewalks or expansion of utility assistance programs. This is all to say that the needs of people are different, but we won’t truly know what those needs are if we are not making a conscious effort to capture that data…this means equity in data collection processes are needed, because there is a morality to data. So, we must ensure that cities are making a conscious effort and commitment to capturing the most representative data, because open data policies must not presuppose equitable data, but ensure that processes will be in place to secure it.

Again, how can we make sure that our governments are appropriately gathering, using and making data useful for just policy decision making?

Within our local, state and federal government entities, open data policies can increase transparency, accountability, ensure efficiency and increase public participation, to name a few benefits. Additionally, using data to examine trends, can help municipalities better customize services, infrastructure funding, economic growth, spur technological innovation and more. The City of Austin has practiced open data since 2007. Since then, the City has hosted two hack-a-thons, which spurred new ideas such as offers a simple interface for emergency preparedness with checklists and facts in order to help residents protect themselves against natural disasters. Austin continues to engage the community through open data events and innovation support. All cities are unique and can leverage open data policies to innovate and imagine solutions for their community needs.

Example One: 2nd City Zoning

Zoning is as boring as it gets when it comes to local government. However, what isn’t boring is when you’ve got a manufacturing plant being built next door to your large-lot residential home. In other words, zoning and development are two areas that absolutely need more transparency in process. Responsible growth isn’t just about environment; it is also about ensuring that citizens are able to participate and be well informed and engaged in processes. An informed citizenry will better be able to ensure that those developments that do sprout are low impact and eco-sensitive. Without information, there is no knowledge. 2nd City Zoning is a website developed using datamade. It displays, in an easy to use format, a zoning map with basic icons depicting the different types of zoning, such as residential, business, commercial, and so on (sidenote: there is actually Sim City theme music playing in the background…just saying). Additionally, it describes what constitutes each zoning district so you don’t have to swim through the MuniCode to find descriptions and meanings. The website also shares some basic zoning rules such as setback requirements and floor area ratios. So, at any given moment, a resident of the city can go to the website and look up an upcoming proposed zoning change and have a much more informed perspective on the appropriateness of the request. Will this make everyone happy? No, but it makes data and information accessible to the general public.

Open data policies ask that governments make publically available data more accessible. For some entities, this may mean going beyond providing it, ever so slightly, on a webpage that is arduous to access and create a user friendly map that is easy to read.

Example Two: Open Data Philly

Having an open data policy can influence the community for the better. The City of Philadelphia opened up its data and created that serves as a catalog of open data for the philadelphia region with beautiful visualizations. From mapping Philadelphia’s crime rates, walkability scores and visualizing neighborhood change, the open data has allowed for tech innovators to create apps and programs that make data more accessible and easy to understand for the general public. There are over 300 data sets available, over 60 partner agencies listed across 13 different sectors.

Another benefit of opening data is alignment. The City of Philadelphia opened up a contest that would allow local nonprofits select which data sets would best help them reach their mission upon release. Nonprofits may not always have the resources and capacity to spend on data gathering or analysis, but opening up data and making accessible in the manner that Open Data Philly has done, ensures that even our most under-resourced community partners have access to the data they need to better serve individuals.

Data Access

Another consideration for cities that adopt open data policies is access. Opening data is meaningless if we do not ensure that the data is accessible to all. Open Data Philly is a good example of what it means to make data accessible. Access means going beyond availability to making data understandable. Visualization can help make data more accessible — -recall the zoning map?

What Next?

Cities across the country have enacted open data policies over the past several years. The policy can take the shape of a formal council resolutions, executive memo, declaration, and so on. The point is, there needs to be a commitment to ensure timely publication of data for maximum transparency, accountability and efficiency. Additionally, there needs to be a commitment to accessible data and equity in data collection processes. There are nuances and questions that governmental entities will have to grapple with to create such a system. The National League of Cities published a report in March with case studies to examine the effects of having various open data policies at work. In it, they reiterate the fundamental principles of opening data, which include availability, reuse and universal participation. Some cities will have to tackle legislative obstacles to enact an open data policy, while others may not. Regardless, enacting open data policies at the local level will only be a minimal heuristic process as many cities have already done so and learning from them will be essential for the success of all other cities.

Back to Trump’s Election Committee

There is a morality about data that we’ve come to discover as we’ve evolved, technologically. We’ve got to decide how we are going to use this resource. Data sharing can be harmful or can be beneficial. Cities have a responsibility to take a stance against bad data sharing practices and unrepresentative data gathering to use for decision making. Crafting an open data policy will ensure that Cities are on the right side of the data morality quandary.