Open Data: When Uniformity Becomes a Virtue

Open data encourage transparency, accountability, and citizen engagement, all ideals of democracy. But context is equally vital, and unfortunately it’s often missing from the open data conversation. While individual states and cities have taken action to open up their books, little has been done to regulate and structure their data so that the information can be used for comparative purposes.

The problems with locally-collected data are obvious when talking about things like passing state exams (try comparing pass rates on IL exams versus NY exams), but far less intuitive when looking at, say, the cost of government. For example, does the salary of a building code inspector get tracked under administrative functions? Housing expenditures? Public safety? What about if the inspector works for the town, but his pay is subsidized by the county?

Enter the U.S. Census Bureau. While the Census does cost the U.S. taxpayers money, their surveys provide something invaluable—uniform data. Whether it is the Census of the population or the Census of governments, all respondents must put their data in the same form, in response to the same questions.

This is the power that backs GovisticsTM, a new web-based government spending database from the Center for Governmental Research. You can easily track every dollar for every government, but most importantly, you can compare the data across municipalities with similar demographic characteristics. Having this information lets you move beyond “what” and “how much” questions to “why” questions, which are essential for effective change.

Obviously, we think our new tool is great. But we value collective intelligence, and we invite you to check out GovisticsTM. Play with the data. Compare your community with peers. And then give us feedback. We want to build GovisticsTM into a tool for citizens and governments alike, informing and empowering decision-making. We need to know what you like, what else you need, and what we can do better.

Let’s build a more intelligent, more responsive government—together.

Note: As we are a not-for-profit organization, there is a small cost associated with some detailed features of GovisticsTM due to substantial staff time invested in developing the tool. Spread the word, take a look at our very “visual” database, and let us know what you think!

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