The first day of the Wolfram Data Summit wrapped up with Derek Stanford, State Representative from Washington State. Derek gave a really interesting presentation about the role of data and what is happening in Washington State.
Making State Government Data Accessible and Understandable
State Representative, Washington State
The push toward open government data is accelerating, bringing the promise of better public policy and more transparency in government function. This effort shares many of the challenges facing any large enterprise that wants to open up an ocean of information to a vast audience. The audience for this effort is a spectrum from casual observers to policy experts, so a balance between high-level summary and agonizing detail is hard to establish. Information is isolated in departmental silos, with few standards for data presentation. For any given data set, it is difficult to communicate the relevant context or to automatically express its dynamic relationships with other variables. Using examples drawn from Washington State, we will examine some past efforts and consider improvements through approaches such as crowdsourcing, public APIs, and common standards.
Derek started by giving us an overview of the work being done in Washington State and the data being collected. Derek said that it is not just about numbers, it is important to build the narrative to understand what the data actually means. Derek used an example of if you saw a budget line item, but with no description what it is, just the numbers and how challenging it would be to make an informed decision.
Washington State has a strong commitment to public access, but Derek warned figuring out how to do that is a challenge. Derek mentioned one initiative from Washington State, the budget calculator – which allows people to select what areas of the budget to cut and how to balance the budget. Many of Derek’s constituents mailed in their solutions on how to fix Washington States budget shortfall. Derek mentioned that by giving people a way to access information and giving people the right tools to have an informed discussion, the benefits are enormous.
Derek believed that it is more than just putting the data online; it is knowing what to prioritize. Derek started by looking at his audience, but noted that the audience is a huge spectrum. One way to think of the audience is segmenting out users – some want a lot of detail, some want very little. Derek stated that policy experts already know what data they need and who to talk too – so the need is for the people in the middle, where you need numbers and a narrative about the data and how they fit together. Derek says you need to rely on the audience to know what is important, the topic and the level of detail. The audience will also provide the narrative about what people need.
Government should be a good data provider, not just a canned analysis, but should start with raw data and as complete, useful form as possible. Derek believes that by providing data in the right mediums can help provide clarity in roles and have an informed discussion. Derek mentioned that data.gov is helping Washington State develop new ways to promote data and share. He also mentioned wiki-based legislation site called Lexpop.org.
Derek gave a fascinating discussion this afternoon about how data can be transformative and how data is being used in Washington State.
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