Bringing Data Into the Sunshine

March 26, 2014

Imagine, says Waldo Jaquith, director of the U.S. Open Data Institute, that weather data was treated like much other government data. Say you had to file a Freedom of Information Request to get it, and when you did get it — weeks later — not only was the storm you were interested in long gone, but you got it as a PDF?

Luckily, in 1870, Congress established The Division of Telegrams and Reports for the Benefit of Commerce, which would ultimately become the National Weather Service. As a result, weather data is free and plentiful.

Not so with many other forms of government data. Take for example, the results of local property revaluations. When I filed an OPRA request for that data in my town last spring, I was told that not only were there no spreadsheets with the information, I would have to go down to borough hall and look it up on the tax rolls.

It’s Sunshine Week, time for the annual conversation about transparency in government, and as the NJ News Commons and Hack Jersey are planning Open Data NJ, a statewide summit on open data, to be held May 15, I decided to have that conversation with Jaquith and Mark Headd, chief data officer for the City of Philadelphia, though he plans to resign in early April. Both are leaders in the field and headliners at our conference.

Open data is not necessarily easy to explain — it’s not, for example, as high concept as decrying the 1 percent — but it’s important. The term “data” isn’t that easy to understand. Wikipedia explains data as “a set of values of qualitative or quantitative variables” often presented in “tabular” form. Websters calls it “factual information (as measurements or statistics) used as a basis for reasoning, discussion, or calculation.”

What we do know — the reason there is an open data movement — is that the data is usually a lot of numbers, and that finding the meaning of the numbers often requires sophisticated analysis using spreadsheets or database software. Once the analysis is applied, the data can be visualized with charts or graphs, often to beautiful effect. But when governments refuse to release data, makes it expensive to procure, or releases it in the form of a PDF (which is essentially a photograph of data rather than the real thing) not only are those trained to analyze that data are frustrated, it stands in the way of truth and government accountability.

Data journalism by WNYC

“Governmental entities at all levels collect massive amounts of information on everything from property taxes to noise complaints and that information is often stored in databases,” says Ben Lesser, a former investigative reporter at the Bergen Record and the NY Daily News who is an investigative reporting consultant for the NJ News Commons. “Our ability as a society to easily review that information is critical to understanding what’s happening in our communities.”

“The issue that’s all the rage these days is civic engagement,” echoes Headd. “Real civic engagement empowers people to evaluate the job their elected officials are doing. And the only way you can do that is if you have data.”

While some in government may be suspicious of having the public look over their shoulder, Headd tells public officials he works with that putting data out to the public can actually save time and headaches.

“One of the first conversations I have with an agency,” says Headd, is to ask what are the requests that they get over and over again? Property data — who owns what, what it’s worth, whether there are liens against it and so forth — is one of the most requested types of data.

So when Philadelphia underwent a property revaluation process last year,  Headd’s team created an app to allow property owners to easily look up both their old and new property valuations, and to do a quick calculation of what that would do to their tax bill. That allowed Axis Philly to create this map showing, with color coding, who the winners and losers in the property revaluation were.

Map by Casey Thomas of Axis Philly shows who will pay more taxes and who will pay less after revaluation.

Map by Casey Thomas of Axis Philly shows who will pay more taxes and who will pay less after revaluation.

And Headd swallows his own medicine, making his team’s own open data pipeline available for public inspection.

Governments that stick to old-fashioned data reporting practices do so at their peril. Raritan Borough may have to pay $542,000 as the result of a legal battle with Asbury Park Press that started in 2009 when the paper wanted it to provide payroll records in a spreadsheet. They said it would charge $1,100, which the paper decided was excessive.

On May 15, journalists, government officials, hackers and others will come together to discuss the issues in open data, to learn best practices, to air the challenges and the frustrations on all sides.

We’ll hear from former journalist Joe Donohue, now deputy director of the NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission; Jennifer Borg, general counsel for the Bergen Record; Paul D’Ambrosio, head of data for the Asbury Park Press; Marc Pfeiffer, a senior research fellow at the Bloustein Local Government Research Center — and many more. Together, we’re going to build a better platform for engagement between people and governments. Join us.