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Ben Hecht

Ben Hecht has been the President & CEO of Living Cities since July, 2007. Since that time, the organization has adopted a broad, integrative agenda that harnesses the collective knowledge of its 22 member foundations and financial institutions to benefit low income people and the cities where they live.

3 Reasons Why Open Data Will Change The World: A Real-Time View

19 Feb, 2013

open data keyWe find ourselves in the flurry of activity that is to be expected of the dawn of any movement. On this ground, there is an equalizing factor as the social sector, business, and government are all staring into an opportunity that demands immediate ramping of high-quality data practice. In that sense, I don’t mind the now-sustained hype growing out of the mid-90′s. It signals necessary evolutions, and it surrounds legitimate steps forward, including at the level of our information infrastructure. At points along the route, however, it helps to raise the plow, check the landscape, delete some noise, and return to work. Ben Hecht offers a brief tour to situate our thoughts on the subject and suggests ways we can work for meaningful progress.

We have propelled ourselves into a new hyper-connected era full of both boundless promise and unforeseen consequences. The same technologies that link the world in crises, such as the Great Recession, are also producing a wealth of data that can help us solve problems in ways previously unimaginable. From social media and the data beaming out from our mobile devices to sensors that measure and track traffic patterns, pollution, consumer habits and more; we have access to more information than ever about the world and its inhabitants.

Can this data help us to address our seemingly intractable social and economic challenges and the complexity resulting from the interdependence of local, national, and global systems? Can we use data to overcome outdated ways of tackling issues such as poverty and inequality that have not adapted to today’s realities?

Early indications tell us that the answer is yes; however it will require an unprecedented commitment to opening up data from many sources, especially government. While government has always been the biggest generator, collector, and user of data; it has yet to put this data to work in a way that is commensurate with its immense potential to move the needle on poverty, inequality, disease, and environmental degradation.

This is starting to shift as the emergent movement in government to put open data to work, often referred to as civic tech, has governments and organizations everywhere publishing and harnessing more of their information than ever before. Here are 3 reasons why the use of Open Data will change the world.

1. It Is Revolutionizing The Relationship between Citizen And Government

The future of decision-making is all about data. Today, all levels of government, from small cities to the White House, are sharing, communicating, and co-producing with citizens in new ways. These are all steps towards Government 2.0– a fundamental change in the relationship between government and citizen, making information and services more broadly available and replacing the expertise of bureaucracy with that of the citizen.

By opening up information historically kept under lock and key, the public sector is making a commitment to transparency, which is extremely important in a democracy where citizens should know both what a government is doing and how they are doing it. Information about school test scores and crime reports increase understanding of how education and law enforcement policies are working. This can help people to make more informed personal decisions in a data economy – about what neighborhood they choose to move to, whom to vote for in the next election, and myriad other life events.

As people have become accustomed to the user-centric experiences of commercial online platforms, from Facebook to Amazon, it is no surprise that many are advocating for the idea of ‘government as platform’—a democratization of the exchange of information and services.

This model has ‘self-service’ elements that streamline engagement and make it more cost-effective. Cities, such as Boston are empowering residents to be their ‘eyes and ears’ by enabling people to report potholes and graffiti via text message, twitter, or through a mobile app that detects potholes without the user having to do anything at all. And, New York’s comprehensive 311 platform has become the nerve center for this new relationship. 311 enables residents to efficiently connect with city agencies, receive information, file complaints, and resolve issues. Where people might previously have had to make 10 calls or more before reaching the appropriate agency, now 85% of 311 customers have their inquiry resolved over one call. In addition, analysis of 311 call patterns allows the City to respond proactively to issues, such as dispatching extra workers to fix roads; to appropriately concentrate resources; and to get a clear picture of city agency performance measures.

2. It Is Driving Innovation For Economic And Public Good

Beyond transparency and civic participation, the power of open data is that it can fuel unexpected commercial and public benefit. The U.S. National Weather Service provides a great example of the impact of broadly sharing public information in real-time, and in easily readable formats. Think how government weather data has long been used by countless websites, app developers, and media outlets. These uses are estimated to create annual economic value of $10 billion.

Now, the boom in smartphones and apps further elevates this potential. At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has partnered with the non-profit Institute of Government to launch the Health Data Initiative (HDI). HDI encourages innovators to develop applications using health data to raise awareness of health issues and systems performance, and spark community action. Popular apps that have been built off open health data include Castlight Health that works like the popular travel site Kayak to compare healthcare costs at different facilities, taking your insurance coverage into account. And, innovative Mayors, such as New York’s Mayor Bloomberg are launching contests to create apps that use city data to improve city life.Code for America provides a forum for accelerating promising local approaches, tracking 669 apps in 278 cities. From real-time transit schedules, to online restaurant sanitation reports, to parking locator tools; data, in the hands of tech savvy citizens and organizations, is already working to improve quality of life around the world.

As more data is accessed, analyzed, and repackaged in useful forms, we will continue to see increasing levels of public-private collaboration and innovation in the future. But, in order for the open data movement to reach its transformative potential, it must dream even bigger—moving innovation from the periphery of how government operates (transactional issues) to addressing systemic issues.

For example, a recent scan of the civic tech field conducted by Open Plans and Living Cities found that the movement has yet to significantly change the relationship between low-income city residents and their local governments, or to address pressing challenges facing low-income communities. As the open data and complimentary civic tech movements grow, a sustained effort will be required to strengthen and preserve a deep, intentional focus on driving it to tackle our most wicked problems.

3. It Is Harnessing Predictive Possibilities

In terms of tackling wicked problems, many experts believe that real-time data analysis and enhanced pattern recognition will be the most revolutionary force of all. In addition to the wealth of government data; most private sector companies have a real-time data warehouse where they store and analyze huge amounts of useful data on the economy.

And, it will most likely not be long before data philanthropy–private sector ‘donating’ data to the public sector– takes hold. All of this data will combine to open up innumerable predictive possibilities.

Although we are just beginning to understand the range of problems that predictive data analytics can address; diverse fields such as health care, economic development, and education are paying attention and beginning to identify ways that it can change lives while also saving dollars.

Already, Google searches are being analyzed to predict flu outbreaks. And, crime analysis is enabling police departments to deploy officers to places where crimes are likely to take place—before they take place. Data analytics is also being used effectively to determine which students might be at risk of failing or dropping out of school a decade or more from now. These advances enable governments to be more nimble and responsive, and potentially to prevent negative outcomes altogether. It is not difficult to imagine that, soon, analytics of private sector data will help governments to create more informed and proactive fiscal policy; and to foresee and prepare for extreme weather events.

There is no doubt that we are living in an increasingly complex world. But, now, as Rick Smolan says, data has given the world a nervous system; enabling us to collect, analyze, triangulate, and visualize vast amounts of data in real time. This could help us to build “humanity’s dashboard”—a powerful tool that can fight poverty, crime and disease.

Open data alone cannot fundamentally change the relationship between government and citizen; drive the next economy; or predict the future. But, as it becomes increasingly available, it is fair to expect people to use it to do so.

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1 Comment

  1. avatar
    Erika
    February 19, 2013

    I couldn’t agree more. This is the time we need some effective collaboration between the nonprofit sector and the government. It could be for the disclosure of information and for the innovative ways of advocating the growth in social sector.

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