Mobile Web Dev Class at Yahoo!, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from Shemp65’s photostream

Breaking open the black box that is government data has been a goal of policy wonks, community groups, technology developers, and residents for years. With information more accessible for everyone, through smart phones, tablets, and other means, having access to primary source government data in a useable format is not only more important today but it’s also easy to attain. And it’s not only good for the people who analyze budgets and develop online applications, it’s of immense importance to the end-user as well – the people of Pittsburgh. Seeing exactly how your government spends its money and the results we achieve with that spending can give you a sense of how things are working, or if they’re not working. For us in government, putting our raw data in the hands of experts who can create applications to visualize it can change the way we operate, help us find efficiencies, and help us evaluate programs. Pittsburgh needs a world-class open data policy.

1. Transparency Leads to Accountability

When all of Pittsburgh’s government data is freely available online to anyone who wants to access it, the elected officials, department leaders, and city employees who do the work that data represents are more accountable to the taxpayers. If any resident can go to a single website and see which streets were paved, how much it cost, and how many were left untouched, it can dramatically change the way street paving operates. When anyone can see how many code violations were issued, how many were addressed, and how many led to fines or legal action, they can hold their public servants accountable and rally their communities to push for change.

We shouldn’t be afraid of opening our books to the public; in fact it is our responsibility to do so.

2. Transparency Leads to Innovation

Opening our data to the public, particularly to people who have expertise in developing online applications, could spur a wave of innovation and provide city leaders and residents with new tools to make government work better. For example, when Chicago created their open data policy, a private start up company was formed just to make use of it and transform it into free applications for developers, residents, and city officials. They created an interactive zoning map, an interactive public safety map, and an in-depth budget analysis tool and posted them all for free on their website for anyone to use. Imagine what students at our universities and researchers at our many tech companies can do if we just provide them this information, for free, in a usable format.