Budget using open data in Washington DC

In February, I attended newly minted Mayor Muriel Bowser’s ‘Budget Engagement Meetings.’  The prompt to attendees was simple, tell Mayor Bowser how to cut spending from core city services in 2015 so DC can close a quarter-million dollar budget gap.

While this an important question to answer, I want to propose an alternative narrative: It is possible to close the budget gap when we evaluate our existing open data assets to identify efficiencies that reduce spending and increase revenue simultaneously, without compromising city services, such as  public safety, education, and transportation.

The District is ripe to use data to find efficiencies in public safety, education, and transportation. It’s why we moved our startup company, Open Data Nation— to consult cities with open data assets and engage residents here.

DC was the first U.S. city to host an online portal for open data in 2006. In three years the Office of the Chief Technology Officer has published 598 government datasets online, skills training organizations such as General Assembly and DataSociety teach local mid-career professionals new data science skills, and incubators including the Aspen Institute’s Urban Innovation Lab are prepared to foster the next great civic tech innovation in DC.  

Putting open data to good use holds the promise of making lawmakers more accountable, government services more efficient, and innovations possible. If a large part of the DC budget deficit is the consequence of traffic cameras not generating enough revenue to meet their expected levels of return, we can evaluate which of these expensive resources are not worthwhile and move them or remove them altogether in favor of more reliable streams of income.

As an added bonus, when we put open data to good use, we create new opportunities for entrepreneurs to grow our innovation economy.  This prepares the District to remain a vibrant ecosystem for civic innovation and job growth.

Open Data Nation supports putting open data to good use in DC. Here are some concrete next steps the Mayor can take to support this work:

The following is copied directly from ‘Challenges and Choices for the New Mayor:  Leveraging the Power of Open Data to Improve City Services.’ This memo was originally presented as part of Challenges and Choices for the New Mayor, an initiative of the Urban Institute as part of Talking Transition DC.

  • Establish the Policy and Practice of Open Data

    • Develop a comprehensive strategy for how to improve and open the city’s data

    • Solicit feedback on the plan from city residents and other stakeholders

    • Appoint someone who reports directly to the mayor to lead this work, signaling its importance to agency staff

  • Catalog Current Data Assets

    • Learn from other cities that are cataloging their data assets

    • Conduct an inventory of the data that city agencies collect

    • Use the inventory to improve data-collection practices, inform the mayor’s initiatives, and improve interagency collaboration

  • Build a Culture that Values Open Data

    • Establish a mix of directives and incentives to drive home the value of open data

    • Use open data as part of the performance management process to evaluate and improve government services

    • Provide training on policies, technologies, and data analysis.

    • Recognize agency staff who practice open data

    • Clearly convey to agencies the importance of the annual open government reports.

  • Engage External Stakeholders

    • Seek input on technology and design.

    • Develop an explicit plan ongoing engagement with different groups

    • Build relationships with chief innovation officers and data offices around the country.

Image credit: Alan Cleaver