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While we discussed extensively this week the efforts of the political parties and other partisans to use new tools and voter databases to win elections, we did not explore similar efforts on the governance side of things. In governance, these sort of tools have been employed to increase transparency of government and to provide more interaction between the department and its constituent groups. Below, I explore the move toward open government data and the reasons that some departments might be more inclined to actively participate than others.

For the past few weeks, my life has been occupied by a project for JOMC 586: Intermediate Multimedia. For the project, we were required to take data from data.gov and use it to create a data-driven dashboard. Exploring this data got me thinking about the implications of tools like the FAA’s Wildlife Strike Database, which I used in my project. This data would not have been easily accessible to developers if it weren’t for the push to create data.gov.

Government transparency, centralized

In an effort to be more transparent and to communicate more effectively with their constituents, cabinet departments have provided datasets on data.gov and through their own websites. This aggregation of data has been an important step in the direction of transparency for several reasons that are explored in an article published by data researchers at RPI. (The paper also explores the creation of a wiki page to improve the site.)

1. Linking – The ability to connect up government datasets is much easier now that they are all aggregated in a single place. With metadata and tagging, datasets surrounding similar topics can be easily sought out and found.

One example of this is the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics site. Data here ranges from a dashboard about airports and air travel to freight data. The ability to organize all of these tools under separate pages makes the use of the finding of relevant data that much easier.

2. Encouraging usage – Providing data in files that web developers will be able to easily use (JSON, XML), data.gov encourages the proliferation of the things stored there. Cutting down on the time it takes to ready files for publication is an important step toward  transparency and good relations with government departments.

Data.gov has several different data types to choose from that make it very easy to find the type of data you want to download.

What drives change

Campaigns clearly have an incentive to develop data tools such as this to be used internally, but what encourages cabinet departments and government organizations to do so? With nominal electoral consequences, it would seem that bureaucracy is the main determinant of innovation in a department.

Often, bureaucracy serves as a barrier to technological change. Government workers fearing a change in the status quo will temper ideas that make their jobs harder or require them to learn new skills. Thus, most of the responsibility rests on the people involved and whether they are receptive to change. This is the argument posited by Darrell West in his book “Digital Governance“.

I would also argue that the mission of the organization heavily influences the degree to which organizations will focus on innovation. If there is little use for tools like these in a certain department’s business, they will not be a priority.

There can be benefits to implementing internal data tools that organizations can use to identify trends and easily access a virtual needle in a haystack. Once these tools are developed for internal use, the question becomes, why not make them available to the public? Instead of requiring a records request, the government can simply make the data available and let anyone access it.

The Consumer FInancial Protection Bureau is one example of a government group taking big steps technologically. With its Design & Technology Fellows, CFPB hired about 30 designers and programmers to do things like create data dashboards that give consumers better knowledge about their finances and companies they’re dealing with and develop internal data tools for use within the organization. This effort makes sense for CFPB for a few reasons: (1) it’s a relatively new department. No one there is completely stuck in a routine that they don’t want to change. The mass hiring of 30 designer/programmers brings in a crop of fresh ideas and many people without an established routine; (2) the mission of the CFPB is to inform consumers about potential scams and companies that could be out to cheat them. This mission requires CFPB to innovate and communicate with its constituents in an easy to understand way.

Technological change and access to data are important tools for government organizations. The adoption of strategies that prioritize transparency and technological advancement help departments communicate better with constituents and can enable more trust in government.

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