Open Data and Trust in Government

This week I attended an event at the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation in Washington, D.C. Many people involved in civic tech, open government and government innovation came to engage one another and attend a session entitled “The Future of Open-Data: Can Data Rebuild Trust?” Speakers included people like my friend and colleague, New York University Gov Lab Founder and Executive Director, Beth Noveck. She and others talked about the value of open data and trust in government. Specifically, they focused on its ability to have an impact on how communities can become smarter and stronger.

I was in the audience, and as usual at programs like this, I learned a lot from the speakers on this topic. During my long drive home to Baltimore, I reflected about some discussions I had  with colleagues and what I heard from the speakers on the stage that night. I thought about what I have seen during my tenure in both federal and city government that would allow for me to see a clear and precise connection between open data and growing trust in government.

The team I led while at New York City, the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MODA), along with the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunication (DoITT), created the “NYC Open Data Team.” These departments created lots of strong open data tools connecting New Yorkers and NYC government in many ways and on many different platforms.

This blog is about one of those instances. It is the telling from my perspective of a big open data story that broke in NYC. Ben Wellington is the creator of a blog called IQuantNY, as well as a data scientist at a hedge fund in New York. Through his blog, Ben uses NYC Open Data to do some very insightful, and sometimes humorous, analysis about the city.

For instance, he wrote a blog about how to use spatial analysis to find the best places in NYC for Fourth of July fireworks viewing, and another blog about how cab drivers in NYC using CMT programmed cars made more tip money than those driving Verifone programmed cabs. CMT and Verifone are different types of cab payment systems.

But the blog entry that really grew his hero status – and in some circles, his notoriety – was when he used open data to discover the absolute worst place to park in NYC. Ben looked at all the tickets written for parking too close to a fire hydrant and created a map of the most ticketed hydrants in the city. That particular blog was picked up by many press outlets including the New York Times.

One late afternoon, Ben emailed me while I was at work. He gave me a head’s up about a blog he had written focusing on an erroneous action by the NYC government. I forwarded his email to the rest of the NYC Open Data team with just three words: “let’s discuss now.”

Ben shared with me in an offline thread that he was writing about how the NYPD was systematically ticketing legally parked cars to the tune of millions of dollars. He had figured it out using open data.

He was not intentionally trying to be antagonistic to NYC government or NYPD for that matter. He used Open Data and made a discovery he felt obligated to tell. He had been trying to engage with NYPD for a while on this story, but with no response. That is why he reached out to me. He figured my team and I would be a useful conduit to city leadership on this matter.

The NYC Open Data team discussed this blog and ultimately decided that it was good for city leadership, New Yorkers and the mission of NYC Open Data and quite frankly, open data all over the world. Ben was showing the value of it and demonstrating how open data was meant to be used; to give ordinary citizens insight into the operations of their government, making it transparent so they can learn about their city and engage with their government.

At this point I did what I could to engage with city hall and get them to talk with Ben about his blog before publishing. My team and I, and of course Ben, saw this as a good thing for New Yorkers. It was time for those of us (primarily me) who travel the world getting invited to conferences to extol the virtues and value of open data and how it is a powerful tool for transparency, to put up or shut up.

I won’t bore you with any additional intricacies of this story except to share that soon after, Ben published his blog appropriately titled: “The NYPD Was Systematically Ticketing Legally Parked Cars for Millions of Dollars a Year- Open Data Just Put an End to It”. If you don’t read the whole blog I want to share with you the end of his blog which was (and still is) in my opinion as well a written piece about the value of open data that I have ever read.

NYPD released a statement, at the end specifying: “Thanks to this analysis and the availability of this open data, the department is also taking steps to digitally monitor these types of summonses to ensure that they are being issued correctly.

Ben writes in response to NYPD’s statement:

“I was speechless. THIS is what the future of government could look like one day. THIS is what open data is all about. THIS was coming from the NYPD, who is not generally celebrated for its transparency, and yet it’s the most open and honest response I have received from any New York City agency to date. Imagine a city where all agencies embrace this sort of analysis instead of deflect and hide from it. Democracies provide pathways for government to learn from their citizens. Open data makes those pathways so much more powerful. In this case, the NYPD acknowledged the mistake, is retraining its officers and is putting in monitoring to limit this type of erroneous ticketing from happening in the future. In doing so, they have shown that they are ready and willing to work with the people of the city. And what better gift can we get from open data than that. “

This is just one example of the power of an initiative that is still in its most nascent stage. With respects to open data and building trust in government, I do think the best is yet to come.

Amen Ra Mashariki is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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