Trust but Verify: How Open Data Connects Gov and Citizens

Late last week I was a moderator for a panel in Baltimore, Maryland. The panel discussed the way cities and communities can partner for open data. I talked for the first seven minutes about how the partnership between city data leadership and the community is important for open data to be successful.

I specifically talked about the way my former office (the New York City Mayor’s Office) worked with a community-based civic technologist who did an analysis of open data that found that the New York Police Department was wrongfully ticketing New Yorkers who were parking in front of certain pedestrian ramps. In 2009, a law had been passed by city council that allowed for pedestrians to park in front of pedestrian ramps at T-Intersections, where three roads come together and form a ‘T’, in order to open up more parking spaces in the city.

During my brief remarks, while discussing the change to the city administrative code, someone defiantly, albeit nicely, stated that pedestrian curbs were an implementation of the Federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulation. As a quick primer, the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications.

And as such, if it is a federal law to provide the guidance for the placement of these pedestrian ramps, how was NYC legislation superseding federal law and changing the administrative code to allow individuals to park in front of pedestrian ramps?

Because I didn’t have much time for my remarks, I acknowledged her concern, mentioned that this wasn’t a law to remove all pedestrian ramps in NYC, and hurried through the rest of my talk. This blog is an explanation of what I would have said if I had the time.

She is right, to an extent. Under Title II of the ADA law it states that “To allow people with disabilities to cross streets safely, state and local governments must provide curb ramps at pedestrian crossings and at public transportation stops where walkways intersect a curb.” But, as with most federal laws, they are not prescriptive with respects to where to put the actual pedestrian ramps in your respective city.

Herein lies the undeniable power (intended or unintended) of open data in cities. When the federal law was passed, NYC, like all other cities, moved to ensure compliance. Now, let me pose three rhetorical questions:

  • Do you believe that for its initial pass at executing the federal law the NYC government did a perfect and precise job in building the pedestrian ramps across the city?
  • If you lived in NYC and were experiencing issues with parking on your block, wouldn’t you reach out to your city council member and ask them to find a way to fix this situation?
  • How do you ensure the city is correctly doing the job you as a resident have asked them to do? In this case, making parking more feasible across the city while keeping compliant with the ADA.

The creation of this country was founded upon citizens challenging the government. We have done this throughout time, but open data adds a new, more powerful dimension to this centuries-old democratic practice.

When engaging with the Russians on nuclear disarmament, Ronald Reagan often used the quote: “trust but verify.” Open data gives citizens an opportunity to grow their trust in government through inspection and analysis of the daily work that is being done with our money and in our name. Utilizing open data in your city gives you an unprecedented opportunity to engage with government that would make our forefathers envious and proud.

Why? Because if done right (on both sides), this sort of “trust but verify” action would only serve to grow the trust between government and citizens. In my humble opinion, tearing down centuries-old mistrust in the government of its citizens is the true power of open data.

In conclusion, the participants questioning of the actions of NYC to pass a pedestrian ramps law was spot on and appropriate. More questions like this need to be asked and more operational government data need to be available so that we all can continue to ask these questions and hold our governments accountable to the answers. Governments should not be transparent for transparency’s sake, but should be transparent to grow the trust of the citizens in their leadership.

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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Nazli Cem

This is such an insightful look at how governments should be transparent with their data, keeping in mind the real reason why they are doing it: To assure the citizens’ trust. I wonder how blockchain could be integrated within a system of trust between government and its citizens.