As proponents of good digital government, we’re excited that the City of Charlottesville has finally launched a “311-like” service app called MyCville. This app is powered by Accela and offers basic functionality for users to submit issues, requests, and questions. Most importantly, it seems as if citizens will be able to track responses and follow-ups of their “tickets”. It’s a big step forward in digital government locally.
The purpose of this post is to focus on the importance of making as much of this data open as possible. It’s clear that nearly all of the data submitted into the 311 is public data and subject to FOIA. However, past legal definitions, let’s discuss the spirit of this data. First and foremost is the fact that this is crowdsourced data – meaning it is created by and comes directly from citizens. It only makes sense that this data is then shared back, in aggregate, to the community via the Open Data Portal. Additionally, there is a prevailing notion of city hall being a “black box” where requests/data/transparency is not valued and the truth is obfuscated. While I dispute that notion wholesale, I do believe there is significant work to be done and trust to be earned. One small way to engender trust is to systematize transparency. This is a perfect place to do so. For these main reasons, I strongly recommend sharing, even with all of its warts, the “311” data.
To be sure, there are very real privacy concerns surrounding the 311 data. The app is incredibly precise when it comes to geolocation data and user entry. I strongly recommend making the city policies surrounding the app, your personal data, and submitted data clearly stated within the tool. Most of this data is probably “public data” by law, but clarity from the city on how they view this data is important. I communicated my thoughts on the city being clear and upfront with users about how, where, and why data collected is being used and shared with the city Communications Director before the formal launch. It’s also critical that they city explains their plan for following-up on the data and prioritizing requests. This will also help engender trust and improve accountability within the new system. As a friend put it, be clear on “what the public should expect” from contributing to this system.
The city has made good strides stepping into open data. The portal is up, people are getting excited, and multiple different organizations are running events/hackathons with its data. In order to sustain this momentum, the portal must contain relevant and useful information. Currently, the transit data is a mess (20% of stops are reported as the default “Garage”) and the crime data link is no longer live. (Update: as of May 4 the crime data is fixed)! Some of this is growing pains, some of it reflects gaps in systems that need to be addressed. I lean toward being patient with these bumps along the track, so long as the train keeps moving forward. One way to ensure forward momentum is to have a plan in place to share relevant and interesting data, like that generated by the new MyCville app. As important, opening the data will help the entire community monitor who is leveraging this resource and reaping the benefits from its usage. It’s important that there is equity in its usage and response with users showing across class and racial boundaries. If there are not “education” sessions forthcoming to ensure equity of usage, there should be.