But merely releasing data for the public to play with is not enough. To really make the investment in cities.data.gov work, governments—state, local, and federal—need to make it easier for companies to use their numbers by creating data standards.
The technology needed to combine government data with websites and apps is already available. The reason we’re not seeing crime incidents mapped onto Google walking routes, available parking spots on GPS navigators, or health inspection reports on restaurant reviews is that our cities have not created a standard way of providing that information to companies like Google or Bing. If each city had a different measurement for a mile, how could anyone possibly abide by the speed limit when going from one city to the next? This is the same dilemma that software developers and policymakers face when trying to understand data from one city to the next. Unlike standard measurements, data can vary from city to city because our municipalities don’t always collect the same information, their databases do not use the same format, and they use different codes to categorize information.
If local governments are unable to collaborate effectively and build consensus on a standard, then companies need to step up to the plate. And this isn’t too much to ask. In 2005, Google did just that and partnered with Tri-Met, Portland’s transit agency, to develop the General Transit Feed Specification. The standard is currently used by about 500 cities that want their residents to have the option of using Google Transit Trip Planner. So it can be done, and done well. Why has it been seven years since we have seen a data standard produced from collaboration between local governments and business? I’m beginning to fully appreciate a Facebook post by The Information Diet author Clay Johnson on Aug. 28: “Inertia has just as much of a corrosive effect on large institutions as corruption does.”
As for restaurant inspections, a representative from Yelp told me that “active conversations” are in place to identify a possible solution. But this isn’t just about Yelp and the health department. Review sites big and small that host user opinions on nail salons, day care facilities, even online reviews of doctors—an idea that has never quite worked—could benefit from being tied in to local government. Because while the crowd may be wise, they don’t know what they don’t know.
Also in the Future Tense package on government and open data: what a burger mob tells us about the future of democracy; the fight to keep data free from political influence; and how Mexico is using open data to move beyond its authoritarian past.