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Open data movement brings tough questions for city-led panel

Friday, March 15, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

With Austin chock-full of forward-thinking tech professionals and ideologues from a variety of industries attending South by Southwest, the city and several leaders behind the movement for open data gathered this week to examine where that cause is headed.

The March 12 gathering at Capital Factory wasn’t an official part of SXSW; instead, presented by the Austin Tech Alliance, the Data Coalition, the city of Austin and Open Austin, the event gave those involved a chance to tout the city’s reputation as something of a pioneer in the publication and accessibility of public data through its Open Data Portal.

Mayor Steve Adler pointed out several benefits of making information accessible to the public, including building trust and ensuring accountability in how the city operates.

“The transparency associated with opening up data builds trust,” he said. “When we did municipal bonds in our November election, one of the reasons I think those passed by 70, 75 and 80 percent approval by taxpayers posing tax burdens on themselves, is that the community trusts the government and how we’re spending that money. When you’re building that kind of trust it’s not only about having construction projects that come in on time, it’s about having a government that is forward looking and has a feel for being transparent.”

Adler called rich data availability a “natural intersection” between the public and private worlds that creates better quality of life and spurs innovations that lead to economic development.

“Oftentimes there’s a benefit in just making data available and recognizing that government is not smart enough or creative enough or clever enough to have the resources to actually recognize all of the benefit that can come from that data,” he said. “When we live in a world where government can no longer be relied on to solve municipal challenges, you really need the private sector taking a look at those same challenges and trying to figure out how to solve them in new and different ways, and then how to monetize the solutions so they become sustainable.”

With all those possibilities come challenges and tough questions around access, equity and the possibility that data can be manipulated. Those leading-edge problems and the potential they offer made up the bulk of the discussion among the session panelists.

For Jameila Styles, founder and president of the Austin activist group Measure, the upside of easily available data is that it allows more precise governance and equity for marginalized groups.

“Most of the data we’re using right now is connected to a problem, and is a rebuttal to the way things are right now,” she said. “One of the narratives we’ve had to take on is, is crime increasing, looking at that question. So we look at the National Crime Information Database to let us know that crime is not increasing and we should not put our money toward an increase in police officers in this area. That type of data allows us to make decisions empowered with evidence instead of going in with just raw emotions.”

Styles said care needs to be taken to make data releases accessible to all groups and presented in a proper context to eliminate or reduce the chances of them being misinterpreted and used against the public.

“Realize the reason why you’re opening a database is to empower people,” she said. “You’re doing it to take a look at your organization or the institution in which you work. Is it measurable? What targets are you looking to improve on? Is it actionable, and are the actions building better outcomes for residents or those that are mostly being impacted? Is the data going to be weaponized on a community or used to perpetuate even more community harm?”

Susan Alzner, co-founder and chief of strategy and operations for the research group shift7, said organizations need to consider the enormity of data they accumulate and how it can be released to the public in a manageable way. As an example, she discussed a 2016 effort to gather questions for candidates for secretary general of the United Nations, which resulted in more than half a billion data points that were analyzed and made available to the world.

“Who owns and uses it? The notion of this is probably a big challenge to any entity that would have an enormous influx of information, the interactivity of it, and in terms of building trust I think that’s the most important thing to do,” she said. “The challenge I would also put forward – and I think this is the challenge really when we get further down the road with what’s happening with these social media platforms – is people need to own this data and control it themselves.”

Robert Shea, former director of the White House office of management and budget, said governmental departments and other organizations need to be able to acknowledge their own biases and priorities with data so they don’t limit their thinking on how it can be used to solve new problems. “Every agency is going to have a learning agenda and a list of the questions they’re trying to get answers to through evaluation,” he said.

“It’s an enormous opportunity to find cross-cutting problems that you can build communities of learning around. The first thing we’ve got to do is figure out what’s going on under our own roofs. We’ve got to be really intentional and driving collaboration across agendas and not remaining in agency silos.”

Photo courtesy of Austin Tech Alliance.

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