Austin is Open by Default... Now What?

Stephen Elkins, CIO, City of Austin
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Stephen Elkins, CIO, City of Austin

Stephen Elkins, CIO, City of Austin

The City of Austin’s journey with open data is similar to a lot of other government agencies around the country. Learning from the challenges other cities faced and how they overcame them has been critical to how we have planned to move our open data and problem-solving in general to the next level. My hope is you can avoid the lulls in progress we had to make your open data program as robust as possible.

In 2013 Austin’s former City Manager Marc Ott directed all City of Austin departments to begin identifying data that could go on our new open data portal. The platform was in its infancy, but his vision for our open data program was that the City of Austin would be “Open by Default.” Slowly but surely millions of data points were added to Data. AustinTexas.gov and we vaulted up the US City Open Data Census rankings. In just a short period of time we had a variety of data that we could showcase on our new tool and our open data initiative was off and running.

Fast forward to 2015 and the needle had barely moved. We had data that was on our open data portal that was stagnant. We watched as other cities passed us by and Austin plummeted to 58th in the Open Data Census. This has followed the pattern of so many other cities that had an initial edict and then made the mad dash to publish as much data as possible. Then, once that was done, it felt like the work was over. We felt we had succeeded by just putting massive amounts of data online. The City was at least more transparent and had embraced the vision of being “Open by Default.” What we have discovered is publishing the data was the easy part. Taking that data and turning it into something useful has been the real challenge.

  More importantly, we have found that we can better anticipate needs and provide services so that calling 911 is not someone’s only option 

It became clear that was our next step. So, in 2015, we began to look at how we could take the data we had published to solve problems. This led us to looking at what problems we needed to solve and if the solutions could be impacted by data we already had. Citywide teams came together and began the work moving our open data initiative forward.

I wrote previously for this publication about the flooding that hit the Central Texas region a few years ago. I detailed how we responded by creating tools with our Code for America fellows that could keep the public safe during dynamic weather events. ATXfloods is the public facing interface that gives real-time updates about low water crossings in our region. ATXfloods has grown from monitoring a couple dozen low water crossings in the City of Austin in 2012; to today where we have more than 2,500 areas being monitored across seven counties in and around Austin. The growth has been remarkable and has helped us provide a service to neighboring cities and counties that can help during emergencies. Now that we have an incredible amount of data we have started the process of thinking how we make the data we have more useful. We identified the next step as integrating this tool with other ones that our first responders and the public already use. Our Office of Innovation is now working on integrating ATXfloods data with Google Maps, WAZE and our first responder dispatch program. This will show users of these applications in real-time where the streets are flooded and reroute them to avoid those areas.

The success of ATXfloods has led us to evaluate how we can keep our momentum going and use what we have to solve some of our city’s largest challenges. It does not necessarily have to be a solution that is solved by data, but it can have a data component. We have been asking the question, can we take services we already have a deliver them in a more targeted way?

A success story of this method has been our Homelessness Outreach Street Team (HOST). This project is a pilot program with a multidisciplinary team of police officers, paramedics, behavioral health professionals, and case managers to provide better and more targeted services to those experiencing homelessness. This program’s goal is provide collaborations between public safety agencies and service providers that enable the right intervention with the right resource at the right time to protect vulnerable individuals that are at risk. The services they provide are critical and with all agencies working together they can remove service duplication, wait times and confusion around finding support. This program has been influenced by data we already have about homelessness, crime, mental health incidents, and other health data. Not only have we found that this program has been able to contact those in need with services more quickly, it has reduced the cost of providing these services. More importantly, we have found that we can better anticipate needs and provide services so that calling 911 is not someone’s only option. We outlined numerous success stories of our HOST team in just the first months it had been going here.

The success of our open data program and the way we have moved it forward has brought success to other areas of the City of Austin. This has given us an opportunity to continue to make progress in a variety of fields to ensure that not only is Austin open by default but that we are smart about solving challenges by default.

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