Big Data in Government

[Originally posted on NextGov.com: Follow Philly’s Lead and Dive into the Big Data Future]

Big data is valuable data in government
Chief Data Officer Mark Headd, City of Philadelphia

Big data” has become one of the new buzzwords and it is quickly making its way into conversations in government. However, it is difficult for government officials to identify what the big data discussion means for their own organizations, what the challenges are, how they can create additional capacity taking on a job that does not necessarily connect to the core mission of their agency and how they have to tackle the issue to respond to requests from the public.

The big data discussion hits government from two different sides: First, big data is created by citizens in their daily online interactions using social media either directly with government or talking among themselves about issues related to government. As the recently released first guidance for social media metrics for federal agencies shows, government is just now getting into the groove of measuring, interpreting and acting on insights they can potentially gain from their interactions with citizens. The other trend has started a few years ago with the newly initiated conversations around open government and the launch of the federal data sharing site data.gov, a public website that hosts hundreds of data sets produced by federal agencies.

Originally, the big data discussion started outside of government, but has direct implications for government as more and more agencies, politicians and citizens are using social media to interact with each other. Social networking platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter, allow citizens to directly connect to government agencies, share their immediate sentiments via comments in their own news feed  In doing so, they create hundreds of new data points, that increase the data volume far beyond a single phone call with a citizen request. As a matter of fact, the conversations can go back and forth between government and citizens, but also among citizens. Social media conversations might not even directly involve government, but they are related to ongoing hot-button issues, upcoming policy changes or the cut of a government program.

Keeping track of potentially thousands of externally created data points published by citizens on a daily basis has become an unmanageable problem that is slowly being addressed in the public sector. As a response, some agencies have shut down the possibility to leave comments on their Facebook pages reducing the cost to respond and track, others actively pull in citizen input or moved on to other ideation platforms that focus the conversation on a specific problem statement and streamline the solicitation of targeted responses and input from the public (see for example Challenge.gov).

The second trend that government agencies are facing is the mandate of the Open Government Initiative to release government data sets in machine-readable format for public consumption.  The flagship initiative data.gov has paved the way for state and local governments to respond in a similar fashion. Most recently, NY state has released its own data portal, a website that hosts about 6,500 data sets from state, city and local government sources in NY state.

The challenge for public managers is manifold: they have to identify appropriate data sets, clean them, potentially merge them from different databases, and make sure that they do not contain any individual or personal information that cannot be released to the public by law. Independent of each agency’s individual response, given the multitude of citizen interactions and ongoing conversations in combination with the top-down mandates, additional resources, increased capacity and new positions with a specific skill sets are necessary to appropriately respond. Beyond the internal organizational challenges to manage information streams, big data is much more: Government agencies also need to understand how they can open themselves up for third parties who are reusing the data.

Mark Headd, the newly appointed first Chief Data Officer of the City of Philadelphia, recently spoke to my social media class at the Maxwell School and shared his first-hand insights into the world of Big Data in government.  Mr. Headd was appointed through an executive order of Mayor Nutter in Philadelphia and organizationally embedded within the ICT unit and directly reports to the CIO and mayor. Mayor Nutter made it a political priority to understand and organically implement elements of the open government movement – an advantage that other cities might not have, where Chief Information or Chief Data Officers still need to battle political fights before they can implement change.

Mark Headd

He describes himself as a data evangelist and an embedded technologist who has the task to discover government data, think about ways to make it available to the public and find a match between the data and external stakeholders who can potentially use the data to create public value. Internally, he is focused on cultural change more than on data analysis issues or technological problems: He aims to convince public managers to see the potential value the data can have for the public, start discussions about the reasons to release data and the way government officials view themselves, but most importantly inform them about changing expectations and citizen needs. Mr. Headd then facilitates connections between data sources and potential data users outside of government.

As one of the first Code for America cities in the U.S., Philadelphia’s local tech community of civic hackers has an immense motivation to reuse public information and create valuable applications. As opposed to data.gov, where data sets are mostly available for so-called “elite access” – a small group of highly trained computer specialists and data analysts – the approach in Philadelphia focuses on data that is not highly specialized, already publicly available, such as transit data, day care centers, information about flu shot locations, etc. Most people will consume the existing data through web browsers, either on their desktops or mobile phones. Mark Headd describes Philadelphia’s approach to open data as a focus on the “last mile”. By that he means, that the city invites civic hackers who recombine the existing disconnected data sets in a mindful way to go beyond mere display of data sets, as it is done on data.gov. The city wants to increase value to go beyond merely pushing out data as the main objective, instead they collaboratively want to build new mobile phone applications by recombining data.

Events such as “Code for Philly” in collaboration with Code for America combines members of government collaborating with the local technology community to use data and build new projects that have the potential to create a civic good. Again, Philadelphia comes with a unique advantage: The existing culture, that is similar to citizen such as Boston, Baltimore, is geographically close to NYC has a very active civic technology community with programmers who are passionate about the city, feel a sense of belonging and community, which other cities such as San Francisco which doesn’t have home-grown technologist.  Mr. Headd’s goal is therefore to capitalize on the people’s love of their city.

One example, for Mr. Headd’s success are applications such as CityGoRound.org, which is a clearing house for applications around transit data. Local transit applications are built to help citizens catch their train. In addition, the application and code are also made available for reuse in other cities, by simply plugging in local transit data. Transit authorities agreed to a standard that makes sharing of already existing applications easy – work products don’t need to be reinvented or recreated around the country. As a result, the city and its technology stakeholders are collaboratively building an entire eco-system around government data use. All cities can use the same infrastructure and format to use the data.

One of the challenges Mr. Headd sees is convincing citizens to reuse the data and make use of the applications. One approach Philadelphia has chosen is to advertise the newly created third-party products on public buses (see for example ‘Where I my SEPTA?’). However, the question of endorsing and publicly sponsoring products that were built outside of government is still an unresolved issue.

Another challenge is the cultural change necessary to change existing bureaucratic governance procedures. For Mark Headd the solution is a conversation about effectiveness and efficiency of the current use of government data. He shows public managers he interacts with how they can reduce inefficiencies in responding to a steady stream of Freedom of Information Act-requests (FOIA) to release data to individual citizens or journalists. Every request takes time, is oftentimes burdensome to the unit and labor-intensive to research and respond to. Mr. Headd works together with public managers to look at the top-5 data requests, collaboratively tries to find ways to release the data and at the same time unload the administrative burden off the unit to respond to each request. Responders can simply point requestors to the publicly available data set and save time, resources, and money to research, vet, and formulate responses.

As an example, the Department of Licenses and Inspections receives multiple requests to release data about the number of locations of vacant houses as well as code violations. By releasing the data on a public website, the city allowed developers to create mobile applications and in turn significantly reduces the number of written requests and phone calls. The research activities for similar types of requests are minimized by simply pointing requestor to the new app. Government staff can turn their attention to the core mission, instead of being derailed by FOIA requests. A direct benefit to the release of government data.

Similarly efficient is the reuse of the data on the citizen side: during hackathon events civic hackers are building a service on top of government data sets and are therefore helping themselves, instead of having to reach out to government. A new form of co-delivering public services build on big data.

Mr. Headd shared a few insights on how other Chief Data Officers can tackle the issues in their own cities. He says “Nobody wants to be first, so point people to other success stories in other agencies.” He is constantly evangelizing about the value of big data, but is also informing local and city government and making his colleagues aware of what is going on around the U.S. (and the world), which helps them understand the benefits of releasing data. He suggests to show public managers tangible benefits, instead of talking about less tangible benefits such as openness or accountability which are very difficult to quantify, especially in budget-driven conversations.

Mark Headd sees limitless applications for the release of government data and the analysis and reuse of big data: Budgets, spending, crime or transit data enable people to see how well city employees are doing their jobs and help them make aware of the improvements or new focus area. The big data discussion can help here to talk about high performing government and all the things that work very well in local government. Most of the coverage government receive is unfortunately focused on things that are going wrong – big data can change the focus.

Lastly, social media and government data can then come together to create more personalized connections to citizens by communicating success stories. Citizen engagement will stay the major challenge: Similar to voting, Philadelphia has identified about 40 other processes in which citizen feedback is needed, engagement is low, and new experiments to increase feedback are needed. An application was recently launched to pull citizen opinions into the policy-making processes: Textizen.com allows citizens to send in their feedback by cellphone – without needing an expensive smart phone to actively participate in the policy-making process. By institutionalizing easy to use tools to which every citizen independent of their age group, income or technological literacy has access to, tools like Textizen can become part of a government’s future planning process and can automatically generate input without hosting town hall meetings at which limited numbers of people are participating.

The example of Philadelphia’s success is certainly an outlier: The city is blessed with a unique combination of advantages that other local governments might not have:

  • a political mandate that supports and mandates reuse of public information,
  • a technologist who understands managerial as well as technological and cultural issues in government, and
  • a unique tech community who loves its city and pushes the envelope to innovate.

However, all cities around the U.S. are invited to simply reuse existing applications without reinventing the wheel on a daily basis. Get going with resources that are already freely available and dive into the future of big data in government.

Advertisements

About Ines Mergel

I am Full Professor of Public Administration at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at University of Konstanz, Germany. Previously, I served as Assistant and then Associate Professor (with tenure) at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, NY. In my research, I focus on informal social networks in the public sector and the adoption and diffusion of digital service innovations in government organizations. I teach classes on social media management, digital government, public management, and social network analysis.

One thought on “Big Data in Government

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s