Using Data in the Public Sector

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

The City of Austin and the rest of Texas was inundated with  unprecedented rain this past spring. The flooding experienced during Memorial Day was extraordinary, with several feet of rain falling that weekend. This was not the first time substantial flooding has hit the area. Years earlier, in the aftermath of another flooding event, an internal conversation began about what the City could do to be more proactive. The City of Austin had opportunities to use data to help identify and solve community issues and wanted to use the recurring problem of flooding as a perfect case study.

"To anyone starting or evolving an open data program, it is fine to start small with plans to iterate and scale up over time"

We began by pinpointing the required datasets owned and managed by the City of Austin and shared them across multiple regional government agencies who owned various aspects of flood control. Using the data and multi-agency collaboration we were able to develop the Flood Early Warning System (FEWS) that predicts—up to six hours in advance—which roads will flood and what areas need to be evacuated. With this information, emergency personnel can make timely life-saving decisions.

This is just one example of the power of releasing and sharing data. And while FEWS was developed internally, members of our community have shown great initiative in taking government data and turning it into something incredibly useful. A great example of this is an application developed by Open Austin, Austin’s Code for America Brigade and civic development group, called Pet Alerts. Pet Alerts helps to answer a question when someone loses a pet: “How do I know if my pet has been recovered by Austin Animal Services?” This app allows the owner of a lost pet to receive text or email alerts when an animal matching their lost pet’s description is taken in by an Austin animal shelter. This app gets the data from the city’s open data portal which is updated each time a new animal is taken in by a shelter. Not only does this help reunite owners with their lost pets more quickly but it also helps the shelter to focus its resources on housing animals with the most need.

And while the apps resulting from data sharing efforts are a great end result, the greatest value has come with the outreach, collaboration and new relationships created along the way. Conversations with small groups of individuals interested in improving their community have led to larger partnerships with fortune 500 companies, local universities, other government entities, startups, journalists, and our civic tech community. These partnerships are providing access to resources and tools that government doesn’t typically have access to and allowing our partners to step on the other side of the counter to understand how government works.

The City’s efforts in open data also played a key role in creating Austin’s partnership with Code for America. During the 2012 fellowship, the Code for America team helped demonstrate how open data can help fuel innovation through community outreach, hackathon events, lean methods and open source technology. The lessons learned and the continued partnership with the CfA peer network, have provided an excellent framework for Austin to continue to sustain and expand its open government initiatives.

To anyone starting or evolving an open data program, it is fine to start small with plans to iterate and scale up over time. It will be important to have an executive level champion and to be persistent in the goal of making open data part of your organization’s DNA. Our City Manager, Marc Ott, has been vital to the success of our program. His continued support has helped in knocking down barriers that may have stood in the way of getting data onto our portal. He promotes the important phrase “open by default,” which has resonated with our department directors and sends a clear message that data without legal, privacy or ethical restriction must be shared.

In Austin, we started our open data program unsure of what the impact would be. We immediately saw a positive response to our efforts and realized opportunities for mutually beneficial collaborations. The community at large met the City of Austin’s Open Data Portal with open arms and we’ve begin to realize real organization efficiencies and return on investment. There is a dedicated team who believes in the vision surrounding open data, and local business and individuals who freely dedicate time and energy to make our data into something valuable. We continue to experience success in this arena but that does not mean we will stop moving forward. Our next open data initiatives will revolve around data quality, publishing Citywide and department performance measures and sharing with the public how we set goals and what we do to achieve them.

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