Open Data Makes Change Possible

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When you’re responsible for gathering a vast array of key demographic and economic data for the entire country – you’re going to have a lot of data. A lot.

But that data won’t do much good if it’s not presented in a way that makes it easy to access, use, and customize into something that best serves customers.

When you have a customer base as diverse as the Census Bureau — everyone from expert data users to first-time visitors — it can be hard to find a solution that meets all of their needs. However, one solution is open data.

By creating an Application Programming Interface, or API, we have given our customers the freedom to slice and dice public data in whatever way best fits their goals. Through our API, developers can access our data or pull specific pieces of that data to help shape their products, whether it’s software, web applications or mobile apps.

Think of those online maps, or real estate databases or job-search sites we all use — there’s a good chance some of the data you see is funneled to you via the Census API. With APIs, instead of downloading and rummaging through an entire file, developers can get the exact data they need — and that data is updated automatically whenever its source is updated.

Building Opportunity

Recently there’s been a lot of buzz around the latest Census.gov sub-site, opportunity.census.gov, a new federal website that aims to put data to work for the American public.

The site curates data from the Census Bureau, as well as other federal and local government agencies, and puts it all into the hands of developers who have the skills to build applications that can improve the delivery of social services. Next, the site makes those applications available to the American public, civic leaders, and social service agencies.

The ultimate goal is to use the power of open data to give every U.S. citizen the opportunity to succeed.

The project covers a lot of bases. Let’s say you want to move to a part of Baltimore City, for example, with more job opportunities than where you live now.  The Invest in the Future tool — created by Zillow, an online real estate listings provider — identifies areas of the city where residents have the most access to employment and can help people find jobs in their own neighborhood.

Other websites and tools that use Census data include:

  • Transitanalyst.com, created by Azavea, displays those modes of public or private transportation that can get someone to various amenities in a city — such as child care, health care, grocery stores, recreation centers and so on.
  • Diversitydatakids.org’s How Affordable is Opportunity? weaves together the stories of marginalized neighborhoods with interactive story mapping that shows where opportunity is and how affordable it is for white, black, Hispanic and Asian children.
  • The Affordable Housing Finder, created by mapping company Esri, locates programs where low-income citizens and children can find opportunities to succeed.
  • Streetwyze, a neighborhood navigator powered by local, up-to-the-minute data, provides knowledge about how to get around a city and what might get in the way, like construction or business closings.
  • GreatSchools, made in part by Zillow, assists families who want to find good schools near the housing they can afford.

At the Census Bureau, APIs have changed the way people use and view our data, including us! We’re able to be more agile in how we develop and power our smart search and applications such as My Congressional District, and America’s Economy, a mobile app I wrote about in my first blog. Hopefully APIs can help you and your data users build tools and services, too. Freeing your agency’s data for the benefit of the public and the business community is essential in the 21st Century. While you communicate the value of what your agency does for taxpayers, you empower the public through efficient citizen services.

Stephen L. Buckner is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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