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Book Review: What Code for America Has, and Hasn't, Learned About Getting "Beyond Transparency"

BY Susannah Vila | Monday, November 18 2013

Code for America recently published a book of case studies written by members of its network. While it’s called Beyond Transparency: Open Data and the Future of Civic Innovation, its biggest value lies not in futurism but in the book's descriptions of the lessons learned by people working on open data releases in U.S. cities over the course of the past few years. Many of these examples could help local-level reformers now - both in the U.S. and overseas. And they also show that there's still a lot of hard work to be done moving from making civic data accessible to users, to actually getting people to use it.

Lessons about the benefits of releasing open data:

Some of the book’s most interesting cases demonstrate the positive impact of data releases on the very actors who are releasing it.

Take the case of SmartProcure. Officials in the same city were purchasing products at completely different prices because they weren’t talking to one another. SmartProcure’s CEO, Jeff Rubenstein, wanted government to release data on purchase orders to create a service that would allow public officials to make more informed purchasing decisions. He couldn’t get them to, so he filed lots and lots of FOIA requests, collecting roughly sixty million orders. Now local governments pay for the service because it saves them money - one official reports saving $30,000 on a purchase of pavement rollers for his city. Advocates wanting to push for open data can incorporate examples of how it would meet the needs of government into their advocacy.

“When internal systems or processes first become transparent to end-users via the internet, something profound happens," says CfA’s Cyd Harrell. She uses an example from the private sector to demonstrate this. When the department store Nordstroms made online shopping available it quickly became obvious how unusable their system for managing inventory was. They were compelled to change it. Presumably this made life easier not just for customers but also for employees. Releasing data creates political will to improve systems like databases and the UIs for accessing them.

What works for turning data into useful information:

Most of Beyond Transparency's success stories involve a product or service that surfaces the economic and institutional value of data. The McKinsey researchers whose essay is included in the book put it best when they say that “to a certain extent, open data is a ‘platform play,’ i.e., a foundation on which third parties can build innovative products and services.” Beyond Transparency surfaces quite a few interesting learnings for how to get from data to product:

- Hire a community organizer.

Jonathan Feldman, the Chief Information Officer for the city of Asheville, North Carolina, talks about how key it was for them not just to have civic hack nights and a great brigade but also a community organizer and alliances with citizen groups that aren’t necessarily tech-savvy. “None of it would have happened if not for our community organizers,” he says, adding that “citizens and government staff speak a different language and have different perspectives. They need an advocate who understands and has compassion for both sides to create more of a conversation and less of a series of demands and silence.”

- When releasing data, open up doors for collaboration as early as possible instead of waiting until things are pretty.

As soon as the London Data Store released data they put out a call on Twitter for programmers to come to City Hall on a Saturday and play with it. When 60 people showed up they didn’t just work on apps but also shared the developer’s perspective on what the data store needed to do in order to recruit and keep more developers. They told the data store to “go ugly early.” This ethos is instilled in the United Kingdom government’s design principles.

- Create relationships from high up.

Brett Goldstein, Beyond Transparency’s co-editor, was the Chief Data Officer for Chicago, a role high up enough in any organizational hierarchy that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see him hanging around small community gatherings. “Historically, a high-level member of the administration does not show up at an open government meet-up to discuss open data,” he writes, “but this was what ultimately enabled me to build trust between these entities” (and, presumably, get them to create things with open data).

Lessons for getting people to use the platforms that developers build

The CfA network appears to have put the majority of its resources thus far into one particular solution to this problem: user-centered design. “We hear again and again the need for citizen centered design that borrows principles from the user experience field to move from data that is open to data that is truly usable and accessible by the public,” writes Goldstein.

That’s an important advancement: it makes platforms more usable and might even provide them, in the people who were interviewed by designers to inform design, with a small pool of initial users. From integrating health ratings with Yelp listings to presenting information about public schools according to the order by which parents would search for it, Cyd Harrell’s essay provides some useful examples of how CfA’s focus on user-centered design has helped.

But how do you move from making data usable to getting people to use it? The book’s selection of essays risks suggesting that user-centered design is the same as user-acquisition. It isn't, and this is where the lessons that CfA has not yet learned come to the fore. As Nancy Scola wrote recently in a long profile of CfA for Next City, to get a broad, representative base of users, civic coders need to do more leg work. They need to go “knocking on virtual doors.”

The essay by two Emerson College researchers, Eric Gordon and Jessica Baldwin-Philippi, touches on some of the challenges that CfA doesn’t yet have a handle on. Gordon and Baldwin-Philippi present ideas on how to get people involved and keep them involved by making civic actions habitual and providing rewards. Interactions with platforms that are provided by government - they use the example of 311 mechanisms - should force users to reflect on their actions in relation to peers. For instance, StreetCred is an application that adds a gamification layer to civic experiences. It has a social reputation system and lets people see their participation within the context of others and community data.

Gordon and Baldwin-Philippi’s essay raises one other interesting challenge for the civic innovation community. “While civic hackers and government employees continue to chip away at the technical and political problems of data accessibility and interoperability,” they write, “there is a culture of use that is burgeoning in the civic realm that needs to be attended to. New tools enable citizens to access, share and contribute to civic data repositories...Each time someone uses a tool to help them choose a public school, catch a bus or report a pothole, they are interacting with and contributing to civic data.” The examples from CfA that I’ve drawn out here all go in one direction: from the purveyors of data to their intended recipients. But each time you report on a pothole, you’re creating data that could be useful and should be smartly integrated data sets.

And it’s not just civic actions that are leaving a potentially valuable trail of data. Any service or platform that a user engages with yields, by virtue of that engagement, data with implications for civic innovation. If I use Waze to get home from work faster it’s not much of a civic action, but the route I find might help someone else to improve civic life. Indeed, the examples from the book that initially had nothing to do with civic innovation are some of the most interesting and useful. I’m thinking of projects like Smart Procure or BrightScope, whose goals were more profit driven than civic. These cases illuminate the importance of looking beyond civic motivations for getting beyond transparency.

Beyond Transparency is a milestone for the civic innovation community both because it codifies what’s been learned and delineates what has not yet been learned. As Goldstein, the former CTO of Chicago and co-editor of the book, said recently, the civic innovation community now needs “to launch past to the next step, we have made good work, but there’s a lot more to do we do government as smart as we do other sectors? That should be our challenge.”