The information revolution gets serious (except in Nevada)

Drew Mingl, left, and Nole Walkingshaw brief reporters who gathered around them after they explained Utah’s open data program at a newspaper convention in Salt Lake City.

Drew Mingl, left, and Nole Walkingshaw brief reporters who gathered around them after they explained Utah’s open data program at a newspaper convention in Salt Lake City.

In Palo Alto, California, members of the public with a few clicks can learn what days their streets are swept. In some cases, if long streets are done in sections, the range of house numbers where sweeping goes on each day of the week are listed.

But Renoites cannot do the same thing.

In Seattle, Washington, citizens can learn the boundaries of the city’s 51 police beats.

Renoites cannot.

In Salt Lake City, the location of all active building permits can be shown on a city map, and each can be clicked to obtain details and documents associated with each permit. The same thing can be done with code enforcement.

But not in Reno.

In Los Angeles, residents can track water use by zip code.

But Renoites cannot.

In one jurisdiction after another, open data portals with huge amounts of info are becoming the norm. Nevada is becoming surrounded by such activity. Information that once was available only after a lot of work—and sometimes not then—is now available for the asking, and the asking is done of data sets, not of people who might turn requests down.

“We really don’t know what people are going to use this data for,” said Salt Lake City programs supervisor Nole Walkingshaw. In the past, though it was improper, officials often asked citizens why they wanted information they were requesting. Now, government humans have been taken out of the transaction. The data is loaded electronically for citizens to take. There’s no one to ask them what they plan to do with it.

That’s also the part that makes some people—and they’re not all civil servants—nervous. For instance, in Utah, some activists are marrying autism rates to vaccination rates to try to prove or disprove whatever. Others call up average prices for various surgeries in the state, making comparison shopping as possible with health care as it is with fresh fruit. Something that can make doctors even more sensitive is disclosure of payments to physicians by pharmaceutical manufacturers and medical device makers.

There are also other ways open data can cause problems for people with titles, as when legal problems of the son of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel showed up on an open data portal.

But Chicago was also the site of a tragedy that helps demonstrate the value of open data. On Valentine’s Day in 2010 in the Chicago suburb of Cicero, seven young people—including a 3-year-old and a 3-day-old—died in an apartment fire that was first described as a slum fire but later turned out to be arson by the landlord and a maintenance man he hired to start the fire. The city of Chicago now posts on its open data portal information on “problem landlords”—code violations, inspection records, and so on. At this writing, there are 45 landlords listed, each of whose properties are also marked on a map. The city says those on the list are “residential building owners repeatedly cited for failing to provide tenants with basic services and protections, such as adequate heat, hot water, and working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.” Those on the list are also ineligible to purchase more land in the city, obtain business licenses or zoning changes, or any permits that do not involve repairing existing properties.

Walkingshaw and Utah open data coordinator Drew Mingl last week briefed journalists from across the nation about open data portals during a convention of weekly media in Salt Lake City. Utah is one of the most aggressive jurisdictions in putting raw data before the public. The state has not only gone with open data itself but also hired Mingl to assist and encourage localities across the state to do the same.

“It is their data,” Walkingshaw said of members of the public. “It is not your data, Mr. County or Mrs. County.”

The range of information available in Utah seems endless—crime, toxic releases, Mormon Cricket outbreaks, bottled water, graduation rates, housing, parks, foreclosures, historic preservation, water quality, drought. To make sure no one is left out, the data can be downloaded in nine different formats.

In Nevada, by contrast, there are a few state government sites that can be considered bright spots, such as the state demographer’s website on state and local population figures and the secretary of state’s campaign disclosure files. But there is nothing like the wide sweep of one-stop information at single sites that is going on elsewhere, and even some of those bright spots offer difficulties in navigation or other aspects. Reno and Las Vegas have open data portals and have loaded some data sets, but they trail other jurisdictions.

A new federal law, the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014, encourages states and localities to go open data, though so far it assists mostly with fiscal data.

The term “ironic” is rarely used correctly in journalism, but it is truly ironic that Congress and the president have approved such legislation. Congress and the Obama administration (and its predecessor, the Bush administration) have terrible transparency records. The Associated Press recently reported that that 375 full-time federal records employee positions have been eliminated at a time when “unanswered requests” under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act data were up 55 percent and 39 percent of such requests were rejected in whole or in part, a record high.

Journalists at the Salt Lake convention expressed concern about reliability of data, and the two administrators conceded that there may be occasional incorrect items.

“We’re just taking it straight out of the computer, right out of the data,” said Mingl. “Crap in, crap out.”

But the likelihood that bad information in government files will get corrected increases as it is put in front of more and more eyes. In the old days, bad information might well have stayed in government files forever. Now, there are more people who can see the data, spot mistakes, and call it to the attention of someone in authority.

“We do try to help them clean this data up,” said Walkingshaw.

In addition, information provided to members of the public in the past tended to be snapshots—data as it existed at the time the request was fulfilled. Now, however, open data portals are updated “in real time or at least nightly,” Mingl said.

In January, Palo Alto said it had 102 data sets entered with more added each month.

Members of the public are encouraged to use the data any way that strikes their fancy. Some communities even provide instruction. The Los Angeles site reads, “This data portal features a robust API for all the data hosted here. Build apps and then let us know—we’ll choose some to showcase. … Check out trainings and tutorials on how to use this data portal to make charts, maps, and other visualizations.”

In an analysis of open data policies by the Center for Data Innovation, Nevada received zeros for three of four categories—policy, policy quality, and portal quality. It received a one for having a portal. It’s akin to when the 2011 Nevada Legislature created a higher education “Knowledge Fund” and then left it empty.