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In San Francisco, foodies seeking adventure (but not food poisoning) can see health inspection scores along with reviews while browsing for restaurants on Yelp.

In Louisville, Kentucky, asthma patients can sign up for “smart inhalers” to help the city map where asthma attacks are most common, discover the triggers and shift policies for cleaner air.

And in New Orleans, city residents can visit a site called BlightStatus to track blighted properties in their neighborhood and look for property code violations.

Across the country, efforts like these are awakening cities to the potential of open data as a way to transform citizens’ experiences with government and to improve both policymaking and performance. Seizing on this momentum, Bloomberg Philanthropies recently launched a $42 million initiative – What Works Cities – to help 100 mid-size cities get better government through data. Already, more than 100 cities have applied.

“We’ve struck a nerve,” says Beth Blauer, Executive Director of the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University, one of What Works Cities’ partners. “Cities aren’t deciding whether to do this work, but whether they have the capacity. This effort is about building out that capacity.”

Over the next three years, What Works Cities and its partners – which also include the Harvard Kennedy School, Results for America, the Behavioral Insights Team and the Sunlight Foundation – will provide technical and other support to the cities chosen to participate in the program.

Ultimately, Blauer would like to help more cities follow the lead of places like New Orleans. As innovative as the BlightStatus site is, it’s only one facet of the city’s overall effort to reduce blight, using data to drive its strategy.

Under this initiative, dubbed BlightSTAT, city officials and stakeholders meet once a month to share data on code inspections, blight abatement actions, demolitions and foreclosures, as well as data on the overall health of the surrounding communities. When it launched BlightSTAT in 2010, nearly a quarter of the city’s houses had been blighted or abandoned – a rate higher than in cities such as Detroit and Baltimore. Today, the city has already met its goal of reducing the number of blighted properties by 10,000 – a 30 percent reduction.

“New Orleans is probably one of the best examples of a city that’s embraced this data-informed approach,” said Blauer. “They are constantly thinking about and pouring a lot of energy into this. This isn’t a once-a-year thing.”

Blauer herself is no stranger to data. Before she joined What Works Cities, Blauer was the Director of Open Performance at the government data systems provider Socrata. She also led Maryland’s open data portal, StateSTAT,  an outgrowth of Baltimore’s CitiSTAT and one of the first state-wide open data initiatives in the country.

What’s your approach to how cities should think about data and open data?

Blauer: It shouldn’t be just about open data but about making sure that you’re actively pursuing impact – that you’re making decisions based on evidence tied to the realities of the work. Data is the backdrop for creating dialogue around tangible solutions to solve problems.

We want to see the private sector or higher education institutions consume data, research data or make applications that will have direct impact in improving people lives. For example, every weather app uses open data. Our National Weather Service is constantly releasing data, and people are consuming it. Transportation data is the same. When I was working in Seattle, I used One Bus Away, which is an application that used data the city was releasing. Every single person who commuted used it.

But we also want to see data being used internally to solve problems in government, to help government become more efficient and to inform the way that decisions are made around a number of different issues.

What are the biggest impacts you saw with CitiStat and StateSTAT in Maryland?

Blauer: One of the crowning achievements of CitiStat is that it is one of the first times we’ve seen 311 data converted into action. You saw a huge paradigm shift in the way that residents of the city were interacting with city services: You went from being a resident to being a customer.

If I were relying on a city service, I could have clear expectations of how that service was going to be delivered – whether that was having my sidewalk repaired, or if I had a question about my water line or about trash pickup or a pothole. It really improved big pieces of the city.

When we scaled from the city to the state, we focused less on an agency-by-agency approach and more about how we can take data from agencies to “de-silo” them and really attack some large outcome areas.

For example, we were able to have a massive impact on the health of the Chesapeake Bay over the eight years we were doing the work.

We were taking data from the Department of Planning to think about how land was zoned and who could develop it. We were pulling data from the Department of the Environment to understand how we were making decisions that were helping or hurting the bay. We had our Department of Natural Resources [to tell us] the activities that were happening on our lands. All of our universities – the University of Maryland and all the universities on the Eastern Shore – were collecting data all the time, so we brought them to the table.

Also sitting in the room was the agriculture secretary, thinking about how he could influence farmers’ behavior about how much fertilizer they used and what types to use. And our corrections secretary also participated because he had inmates who were building out fencing along some of the public lands and building oyster floats and spawning spats in laboratories in our prisons.

The conversation became much more focused, and the strategies became much more focused, because we were requesting data, we were mapping out all the issues, and we had much more visibility into what was contributing to the pollution into the Bay. We were able to use the data to start people thinking about the Bay differently.

Can open data lead to better public trust in government?

Blauer: People who are going to distrust government are going to distrust data from government too. The only way to turn the corner about this overwhelming feeling that government isn’t able to perform is to continuously perform and then start outperforming expectations.

I don’t know that just opening data is enough. But if you are opening data that is relevant, and you are using that data to make changes in government and reforming the way you are approaching your work, that is going to have a major overall effort on the perception of government being able to deliver.

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