Openness can make citizens collaborators with officials

Seattle's new posting of data on the city's web site points to better services, technological possibilities, and even new relationships. Citizens may have more reasons to trust an open, transparent government.
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Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell

Seattle's new posting of data on the city's web site points to better services, technological possibilities, and even new relationships. Citizens may have more reasons to trust an open, transparent government.

At its site Data.Seattle.Gov the city of Seattle last week took a modest but promising next step into the high-transparency world of what's called "Government 2.0" by adding dozens of data sets on a wide variety of public assets, as the Seattle reported. Now just a click away are lists (in some cases including links to related city web pages) of public viewpoints, museums and galleries, schools, farmers' markets, off-leash dog areas, park and rides, heritage trees, fishing spots, beaches, community centers, public art installations, and so forth. True, this information was already parked at the city's My Neighborhood Map site, but ongoing additions expected to the city data store herald possibilities for a new form of public engagement that could eventually make obsolete today's easy gibes about public Seattle's infatuation with process over product.

City governments have been slow to use the internet as a true collaborative tool. That's all changing now — from San Francisco, Portland, Vancouver B.C., Washington D.C. and New York City to London. All this comes against a backdrop of major data-based transparency projects at the federal level: one championed in the U.S. by none other than President Barack Obama, and another in England by one of the real inventors of the Internet, Tim Berners-Lee. The focus is on voluntary cooperation by the data-keepers, rather than the old adversarial approach involving Freedom of Information Act or state Public Disclosure Act requests by journalists and advocacy groups. Not that these tools aren't still important. But the scales of democracy have been irrevocably tilted by the considerable, if somewhat randomly-chosen public data resources already online, plus flash-organizing, blogs, social media, and like. Removing barriers between constituents and public information — or "liberating the data" — means a greater potential for building trust between officialdom and constituents.

And so, just for starters, city government data sets are already being used by software developers for handy applications, many of which run on mobile phones, to help you find public assets while you're out and about, or even stay safe on the way home after a night of clubbing. One window into this world is at the DataSF App Showcase. With the Seattle information now available, it's easy to envision a special app for parents; call it "Seattle Parent Map," that might mash up the data sets on locations of wading pools, swimming pools, city parks, beaches, viewpoints, and museums, and stirs in some GPS for an on-the-go guide to kid-friendly amusements. Other such apps could highlight historical buildings and sites, or bike paths, or public gardens, and P-Patches.

In Atlanta, there's "Are You Safe?", which combines municipal crime data with the user's real-time GPS location, to help avoid trouble spots. A similar app tailored to D.C. is "Stumble Safety," which aims to get nightclub and bar patrons home safely by steering them around rough patches in the urban fabric. San Francisco Crime-spotting is another handy app, map-based and Web-browser-friendly. New York held a civic apps contest recently and the winner, announced earlier this month, was Wayfinder. It gives users of Android mobile phones directions to the nearest New York City subway and New Jersey Path train system stations.

It's not all about location guidance in the field, though. Another important type of data set, with which the administration of Mayor Mike McGinn could cement the value of the transparency push, is what I'll call the "disclose and discuss" model. These would be geared not so much to handheld devices, but instead to users of PCs and laptops running standard Web browsers and spreadsheets.

For example, picture easy web access to a data package listing identified repairs needed to city streets and other city infrastructure such as curbs, sidewalks, streetlights, outdoor city stairways (there are 400-plus), and parks facilities. Picture each category listed on a spreadsheet and juxtaposed with the cost, priority level, agency responsible, anticipated completion date of each repair, and funding source. Unfunded repair items would be so noted. Each data set would come with a summary sheet on top. A Google Maps function displaying the same data, with clickable push-pins revealing precise item locales and details, would provide at-a-glance cross-referencing by neighborhood. This kind of disclosure could stimulate valuable discussion about city infrastructure needs versus monetary resources, and how to close the gap.

Then, how about a spreadsheet listing all the Seattle public schools no longer being used as schools, plus the percent of the square footage in each is occupied by tenants; the number of tenants paying any rent; and the property's assessed value? Add in the mapping function again.

This would stimulate dialogue on how ghost school buildings could be better utilized. To house new or expanded programs geared to youth and families? Or should some be sold and the proceeds pumped into capital improvements elsewhere in the district?

As well, let's see city, county, and state data sets online showing aggregate public employee salary and benefit costs over the last decade, and historic and future public employee pension funding obligations. Any conversation about scope of government and sustainable revenue strategies needs to include this kind of information. By making the data more freely available, government retains more influence in shaping the conversations that will occur anyway.

Seattle seems to get the need for more upfront commitment to information sharing. In an announcement reported by the West Seattle Herald, Mayor McGinn, Seattle City Council President Richard Conlin and the council's Energy, Technology and Civil Rights Committee Chair Bruce Harrell stressed the recently-added data sets are just part of an ongoing and broader effort to boost the transparency and performance of city government, and public engagement.

Another piece of this puzzle in Seattle — beyond catchy apps highlighting civic assets, and "disclose and discuss" high-value data sets — is the need for fully transparent, bottom-up reporting systems, such as the UK's Fix My Street site. Here, citizens can inform government of unresolved problems and responses can then be tracked for all to see. In this way, an infrastructure repair data set, which is shaped by city officials, can be augmented regularly with field reporting by citizens, which is then filtered by government to see what warrants priority status and what doesn't. Compared to the old way, it's a huge improvement, as the Sunday Times of London reported: When Janet Murrells tried to get some potholes repaired a few months ago, she drove into the dead end of bureaucracy. Telephones rang unanswered. Pillars turned to posts. Nobody seemed willing to take any action about the gaping holes in the road in Bishop'ꀙs Stortford, Hertfordshire, not far from where she lives. Then Murrells discovered, a website that is a harbinger of how politics may work in the future. 'ꀜThree potholes gone into one,'ꀝ she posted on the site. 'ꀜThe pothole in Luynes Rise is just before the watermill entrance. It is about 4ft long and a foot wide and is down to the concrete.'ꀝ That was all she needed to do. Using clever code and local government data, the website automatically forwarded her message to the relevant department at the local council and the hole was fixed.

Murrells was so impressed that she posted an update on August 5: 'ꀜThis problem has been reported directly to the council on numerous occasions, but going through you, it was done within days. Thank you.'ꀝ In the past week has registered more than 450 reports of potholes, broken street lights, dumped rubbish, graffiti and other annoyances. Some are swiftly solved; others are still awaiting a response. But there is little doubt that the system is having an effect: in the past month more than 750 complaints posted on the site have subsequently been reported fixed.

Just make sure the government identifies the one go-to Web hub that it will be monitoring and responding to, as there are various service providers already trying to elbow their way into this space. It's also important during inventorying to ensure targeted facilities are pegged to the responsible jurisdiction. In Seattle alone, there are city- and state-managed roads, and county bridges.

As Capitol Hill Blog reported during his campaign for office, McGinn spoke compellingly of his desire to create a government platform to "do more with less, democratize the data, and revolutionize community data." The usual expectation has been that constituents will inform elected officials by expressing preferences for this or that policy option. One new expectation — aided by a new generation of data tools — must be that constituents are seen, and utilized, as valued collaborators.  

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