As Federal Data Disappears, New Tool Gives Power to Cities


IN 2014, MAYOR Gary Phillips of San Rafael, California, wanted to start studying the city’s data. He asked his staff to build a dashboard where he could track 10 key metrics, including the city's violent-crime rate, its sales-tax income, and its paramedic response times, and see how they fluctuated over time.

In theory, it was a smart idea that could lead to better-informed spending and decision-making. In practice, though, it meant that Rebecca Woodbury, a senior management analyst for the city of almost 60,000 people just north of San Francisco, spent her days calling other departments, asking for their newest numbers, and compiling them into an unwieldy Excel spreadsheet. Then, because the mayor is an airplane geek, she’d use clip art of airplane dials to visualize the data. “It’s honestly embarrassing to look at,” Woodbury says now. “It would take a lot of time to make something that didn’t even look very good.”

That’s all changed now, she says. San Rafael is one of a dozen cities that recently began testing a new tool created by the Redwood City, California-based OpenGov, which organizes and visualizes data from local governments. Called Performance Measures, it enables people like Woodbury to easily create visuals that track everything from brush fires to local greenhouse-gas emissions.

“I’ve always been jealous of the bigger cities that have data teams and data officers,” Woodbury says. “This gives more power to smaller cities that don’t have data teams and graphic designers.”

Mockup of city data displayed in OpenGov’s Performance Metrics tool.

Founded in 2012, OpenGov provides budgeting tools to more than 1,500 public agencies in 48 states. With that tool, local governments create websites that let their constituents see, in bar graphs and charts, how their tax dollars are being spent. Performance Measures builds on that work, allowing officials of those governments to see not only where the money’s going, but what they have to show for it.

The company is backed by notable names including Steve Jobs' widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, and a venture-capital firm started by Joshua Kushner, brother of White House adviser Jared Kushner. Earlier this year, OpenGov CEO and co-founder Zac Bookman was the only small-company CEO invited to a White House tech summit that included Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Apple CEO Tim Cook. But while Bookman has rubbed elbows at the highest levels of the federal government, his company focuses on cities and states.

The Performance Measures tool arrives at an inflection point for government transparency. “Trust levels in government are at a historic low," Bookman says. "People don’t feel government has been effective.” And yet, since the day he took office, President Trump’s administration has removed critical data on issues like climate change and sexual assault from federal-agency websites. That only heightens the urgency for cities and other local governments to preserve data and share it with an American public that wants to hold elected officials accountable.

OpenGov’s budgeting tool essentially took the thousands of rows of Excel sheets many cities use to track spending, and produced easy-to-read charts so that any citizen or government worker could see, for instance, how much of the police department's salary budget was being spent on overtime pay. Performance Measures does much the same thing for data beyond the budget. It allows cities to upload all of their data, for instance, on the time it takes to answer 311 service requests or the number of potholes that have been filled.

The tool is intended less for public consumption than for the busy decision-makers inside these local governments. “We kept hearing over and over that the higher up you get in government, the less time you have to dive into the details,” says Jonathan Brandon, OpenGov’s product marketing manager who helped develop Performance Measures.

Now, instead of sending a PDF of airplane dials to San Rafael’s mayor once a month, Woodbury has created an online dashboard where, she says, “If at 2 am the mayor wants to know how many assaults happened last month, he can take a look.”

She’s gradually adding to the mayor's initial 10 metrics as well. City officials, for instance, recently noticed a spike in illicit massage parlors popping up around town, and earmarked $250,000 for additional police inspections in hopes of cracking down on the problem. Those inspections amass lots of data, including the number of parlors receiving citations, paying fines, and shutting down. Woodbury wants to track those metrics on OpenGov’s tool, too, so officials will know when they may be able to scale back the additional funding.

For Woodbury, and others like her, the benefits of this kind of tool are local. And yet, if more cities adopt similar tools—and make the data available to researchers and the public—it's easy to see how it could create an alternative trove of nationwide data that could help shape policy far beyond the local level. That, says Brandon, is the ultimate goal. “Our long game is to create a network that allows governments to share this information with each other,” he says.

Here's to restoring faith in democracy, one pie chart at a time.



By Issie Lapowsky
Published: October 3, 2017
Source: Wired | As Federal Data Disappears, New Tool Gives Power to Cities