Most people probably do not realise they rely on publicly available government data every day. But in checking the weather before you head out in the morning or deciding on which bus or train route to take: you are using data — or information — generated by the government and made freely available for public use. You likely did not realise this information even came from the government; you did not pull up your local transit authority’s website nor is the National Weather Service’s website bookmarked in your browser.
No, you access this critical information through the consumer apps and platforms that don’t feel at all like government systems: the weather app on your smartphone, DarkSky, Google/Apple Maps, Waze, etc. These are apps that go with the grain of your regular life, more as a consumer, less as a citizen.
Those two examples came easily to me, because they are now so integrated, they are commonplace, expected. That information is where we need it when we need it.
But this is hardly the rule when it comes to government data. Out of the hundreds of thousands of datasets released by tens of thousands of government agencies every year, only a handful make their way into a consumer experience in any meaningful way.
“Data is messy business. And government data even more so”
Why? Because data is messy business. And government data even more so. “The government” as a singular monolith is more a caricature than a reality. Data is siloed across agencies within just one jurisdiction, let alone across a region or country. (I once heard an apocryphal claim that for every policeman in Canada, the United States has a police department.)
Syncing up data across the multitude of jurisdictions within the country is an uphill battle to say the least, but one worth fighting. Why? Because if we can’t, it becomes next to impossible for government data to make its way into consumer experiences.
So how square this round peg? Data standards. Or common data schemas and metadata. While this sounds wonky, it simply means getting all relevant agencies to publish their information — say bus routes or restaurant inspection scores — in spreadsheets with consistent headers. Or put even more simply: using an Excel template.
Easy enough in theory, this is remarkably hard. Consider public transportation information — routes, stops, and schedules for buses, subways, and light rail — just that simple information would rely on at least nine data streams, all hopefully synced up, and all then standardised from region to region.
I can safely point to two examples for local governments where this has effectively happened: transit data and restaurant inspection scores.
The best summary of the transit data example comes from one its chief architects, Bibiana McHugh. Basically, a big, popular third party (i.e. Google) builds a technology apt for consumption of public data and because of its potential scale and impact, that company is able to partner with an agency to develop a schema and make it into the de facto standard by sheer force of appeal. More and more people were using Google Maps for directions, and so soon enough, more and more agencies got onboard with the (then) Google Transit Feed Specification, GTFS — now General Transit Specification Feed.
We see a handful of examples of data standards taking off, even though arguably there are dozens if not hundreds or thousands of examples where readily accessible government data would be useful for citizens in their everyday life: ranging from notifications of road closures, garbage pickups, or special events to alerts on crime, fires and other emergencies.
A few key phenomena have stayed this invisible hand, including:
- Consumer apps increasingly play in a “winner takes all” marketplace, which limits the number of potential “killer apps” like Google Maps or Yelp out there.
- The length of time it took a standard like GTFS to take hold (5+ years).
There’s a lack of incentive on either side — government or company — to invest in data standardisation. Until now, I hope.
What affords me this optimism? It’s not a what, but a who: Alexa.
Or maybe Siri. Or Cortana. Or Google Assistant.
“This opens the door to significantly more interesting, new ways to engage with your local government”
These devices do more than simply articulate answers to web searches; they talk to you. They understand (when they can) what you are looking for and instead of serving up a list of links, they deliver the music, answer, or information you’re looking for.
These voice assistants do indeed have limited functionality: you can only get certain answers from services that have stepped up to program them with human-friendly, conversational language.
That’s why I was excited to see a city government develop its own offering for Amazon’s Alexa — as hopefully the start of more to come.
Recently the city of Los Angeles launched an Alexa skill that can answer questions about “city council, council committee, and featured events occurring within the city.”
This may seem trivial. But I contend that this opens the door to significantly more interesting, new ways to engage with your local government. It’s not that this information isn’t available online; it is. It’s that now we are beginning to integrate that information into more casual, friendly and direct experiences.
“These in-home devices subtly insert government resources into your daily routine in a way that doesn’t feel like government at all”
What these in-home devices, synced up with public data or even services, do is subtly insert government resources into your daily routine in a way that doesn’t feel like government at all.
That’s a leapfrog opportunity for governments that are still struggling to even build website or web services on par with the private sector.
For this to work, however, at scale, standards must come into play. If every city has to build its own “skill” and encourage people to download their specific rev, then adoption will be just as slow as user numbers on government apps (for reference common 311 apps have alarmingly low usage statistics because we live in a “winner takes all” environment).
If we can work on identifying the core pieces of information citizens want, and the essential services they need, and develop lightweight systems for sharing that standard information — GTFS just requires a government to upload a zip file of excel sheets — then we can inch toward a world where governments can better do their jobs in a digital age: by being where you need them, when you need them, in a friendly, human way. — Abhi Nemani
A version of this piece originally appeared on Medium.
(Picture credit: Flickr/Robert Couse-Baker)