Demand Better: Making government more open and accountable

Throughout October, we're re-running our four-part Demand Better series in an effort to spark conversations and provoke thought about how we can demand more from our city's leaders. This week, we take a look at OpenDataCincy, a new initiative that's opening up information to allow for innovation and collaboration.

The backstory
When President Obama extolled the virtues of open data in government in a 2010 speech before the United Nations, he created opportunities for hackers, entrepreneurs and governments at all levels to embrace innovation through radical shifts in information exchange. The trickle-down effect has already sparked change and a wide range of startups around the United States. “In all parts of the world, we see the promise of innovation to make government more open and accountable,” he said in the speech. “And now, we must build on that progress.”
The open government movement has supporters all across the country—people who want to make government more transparent, participatory and collaborative. Some cities have made data more readily available to the public, which has led to economic development; everyday citizens have participated more in their cities’ decision-making processes; and cities have been more equipped to provide better and more efficient services to their citizens through the cooperation of city departments, government agencies, the public, and non-profit and private organizations.
In an age in which anyone can find out so much about so many things, the problem becomes navigating massive mazes of information to sift the virtual wheat from the chaff. Open government initiatives—more precisely, the open data initiatives—are designed to make access to that information easier.
Where we are now
Currently, the City of Cincinnati’s customer service department, or, offers the easiest access to City information. From graffiti to potholes, residents can report problems and map them, sometimes with just a few points and clicks from a mobile device. But that approach remains reactionary.
OpenDataCincy, less than two months old, is building a portal to access various data sets, applications and APIs related to the Greater Cincinnati region. While awaiting non-profit status in Ohio, supporters have been meeting with local officials, including Hamilton County and City of Cincinnati officials this month, to lay out a plan for an open data initiative, according to Erin Kidwell, ODC’s program manager, an independent software consultant and local leader of Girl Develop It in Cincinnati.
Kidwell says that OpenDataCincy’s program is modeled on other successful open data programs already in place in San Francisco, Boston, and Philadelphia, and she is optimistic that the City of Cincinnati and other governmental entities will implement the program. “We want to be certain that we have agreement with them to jump on board,” she says of the upcoming meeting.
Kidwell says ODC will include municipal data as well as data from non-municipal sources, such as United Way, Yelp and Cincinnati Public Schools. Data sets that will eventually be available to the public run the gamut from locations of public art murals, City budget reports, farmers’ markets locations and campaign finance records to Metro bus and rail routes, tree maps, census data, restaurant inspection results and more.
“All this information had been available, but was not easily accessible to people,” Kidwell says. “They didn’t realize it was there and available. You can’t find what you can’t see.” The OpenDataCincy portal allows access to all this information in one place.
Kidwell hopes that by the end of the first year of operation to have at least 100 data sets up and running. But there is more to OpenDataCincy than simply providing information. The hope is that the data will inspire public forums on a wide range of issues that will in turn initiate projects to address those issues.
“I want to see tangible and actionable projects come out of open data that impact our city, not just from developers, but from the neighborhoods at large,” Kidwell says. Read about OpenDataCincy's Nonprofit Data Challenge, taking place throughout November.
The bigger picture
With ODC, Cincinnati is poised to join cities across the nation opening up information to allow for innovation and collaboration. The City of San Francisco was the first city in the United States to enact open data legislation. It created a catalog of apps at no cost to the City, and in 2012, the City launched ImproveSF, an online platform that allows community problem-solvers to link with problems being faced in the communities.
“City agencies can raise challenges to the public through ImproveSF,” says Jay Nath, chief innovation officer in the City of San Francisco’s Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation. “Through ImproveSF, we can work with the community on a deep level, looking at the problems they see and building solutions. We can help incubate the best ideas for successful outcomes.”
Nath says that the focus of San Francisco’s open government initiatives is on economic development, civic engagement and government efficiency. One initiative to which Nath points with pride is the City’s participation in Open311 API, a collaborative effort between cities, non-profits and developers that allows citizens to become “concerned reporters.” 
San Francisco is one of eight cities that have implemented Open311 apps designed for iPhone, Android, Blackberry and the web. They, like Cincinnati’s, allow residents to report problems such as graffiti, potholes, broken streetlights, litter and housing code violations directly to the city agency in charge of handling those issues.
“I’m shameless about stealing good ideas from other people,” Nath says. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.” Such “stealing”—or “sharing,” as it might more properly be named—is a key part of open government initiatives. Sharing knowledge, data and technologies within a city and between cities is what drives open government.
“We are a group of kindred spirits,” says Chris Osgood, co-chair (with Nigel Jacob) of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston. The Office, founded in 2010, reflects Mayor Thomas Menino’s long-standing interest in increasing the rate of innovation in delivering services to Boston’s residents. Mayor Menino soon acquired the nickname “The New Urban Mechanic” and the name stuck.
“We found that the need for city services to execute daily tasks can get in the way of forming a larger picture of transformative delivery of services to residents,” Osgood says.
Boston is one of the eight cities that successfully adopted the Open311 API initiative. Now, 20 percent of all residents’ calls for service come in to the departments through mobile apps. In addition, the Open311 initiative created greater awareness of the service overall. Osgood says that the initiative also increased calls on the city’s hotline. “It engaged more folks who hadn’t been calling and allowed us to grow ‘eyes and ears’ in their communities,” he says.
For cities considering open government initiatives, Osgood recommends that “they start small, go quick, and learn lessons from each step to reduce risk, time and efficiency.” He also thinks it’s important that someone in government serve as a champion of the “open data” cause.
The Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics for the City of Philadelphia serves as “a portal for innovation inside and outside of government,” according to Co-Director Jeff Friedman. “We try to connect people on the outside looking for people on the inside to collaborate in problem-solving.”
Under the umbrella of Open Access Philly, various organizations such as Open Data Philly, Code for America, Philly in Focus and Change by Us Philly have joined with several city offices dedicated to innovation and technology, building stronger neighborhoods, entrepreneurship and the arts. Their goal? To work cooperatively in developing new initiatives and finding solutions for community problems.
“We decided we would connect people working at the intersection of civic innovation, participation and entrepreneurship, and just started having a conversation,” Friedman says. “It was civic fusion. We became united; there was no ‘us’ or ‘them.’ We all just started working together to achieve a vision.”
An important part of open government is providing open data. Philadelphia literally wrote the book about open data with its “Open Data Guidebook” developed by the City’s Chief Data Officer, Mark Headd. The guidebook explains the rationale for releasing open data, identifies data for public release, stages data for public use and engages users in the data community.
But there is more to Philadelphia’s open government initiatives than open data programs. The City’s “civic fusion” gives rise to public-private efforts to support community engagement around technology and data sharing. Friedman points to the 2013 Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayor’s Challenge award to the City of Philadelphia in the amount of $1 million (Cincinnati was a finalist in the top 20) as a “marquee project,” a result of cooperation and participation from several governmental and civic groups.
Demand better
  • The City of Cincinnati and other governments, non-profits and community organizations should adopt the OpenDataCincy initiative and give it full support, especially through public relations and communications channels.
  • OpenDataCincy intends to hold public hackathons. The City and other government officials need to encourage local businesses and entrepreneurs to attend and to stress the importance of transparency and collaboration across traditional business divides.
  • The City should use its media and communication outlets to let the public and non-municipal organizations know that OpenDataCincy wants data for their portal. The more information, the better.
Signup for Email Alerts