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The Data Revolution

“What we’re trying to accomplish is to fundamentally change the default setting in the public sector when it comes to information and transparency in general,” says America’s first CIO, Vivek Kundra. “We want to by default assume that data is going to be public.” Experiments like D.C.’s Data Catalog and the Federal Government’s new, both Kundra initiatives, are taking that talk and putting it to action. These unfettered data feeds are bringing government information to the public in a whole new way and citizens across the country have shown an endless capacity to take this raw data and present it in innovative ways that make government operations more open and meaningful to them.

This data warehousing type process has its governmental beginnings in the New York City Police Department’s revolutionary CompStat program. And the success of the CompStat approach led other governments to integrate data into their own management practices. Other police departments were the first to copy the program, but in 1999 the City of Baltimore made another leap forward when it initiated its CitiStat program. Citistat takes the CompStat approach of using data to manage government performance and applies it citywide. Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, in awarding CitiStat and Innovations in American Government award claims:

CitiStat’s primary innovation is its ability to tailor performance evaluations to each agency: the animal control manager must explain an increase in strays and propose a solution; the housing manager must explain a chart of vacant houses and the plans to resolve this problem; all managers may be asked to explain each hour of their department’s overtime. The financial effectiveness of the program has been estimated as a total aggregate savings of 100 million for its first four years of existence. With CitiStat’s annual budget of $400,000, Baltimore estimates that its return on initial investment in the first year was over 12 million dollars.

CitiStat’s other innovation was making it’s reports public. Whereas CompStat is almost entirely internal, CitiStat makes public the same reports that policymakers see. The data can then be used by the citizenry to keep track of how the city is doing in meeting it’s goals, increasing accountability and openness.

When Adrian Fenty was elected Mayor of Washington, D.C. he made implementing the CitiStat model a top priority and with the help of his Chief Technology Officer, Vivek Kundra, he met that and then some. The CapStat program, Fenty’s version of CitiStat, operates in the same basic way as CitiStat, using data to hold government officials accountable for performance. However, in addition to making CapStat sessions public and posting them as videos on the D.C. website, Kundra went further and put all of the underlying data online in it’s raw form, in the D.C. Data Catalog.

According to Kundra, “Making government data public was one of my key priorities; by organizing the vast stores of data on every aspect of government operations – from government contracts to crime statistics to economic development – into convenient catalogs and 200 live data feeds, this new democratization of government data now puts citizens in the driver’s seat.”

Kundra’s basic goal, both as the D.C. Chief Technology Officer and now as the federal Chief Information Officer, is to create a digital public square that engages citizens in the business of governing, through the use of internet technology. In this slide show, which was presented to Forum One conference on data syndication, Kundra explains the D.C. approach and his vision more generally.

One of the major successes of Kundra’s term as D.C. CTO was the Apps for Democracy project, which we talked about in our first article in this series. Kundra has now taken that expertise and translated it to the federal level. He has launched and the federal IT Dashboard, “an online window into the details of Federal information technology investments and provides users with the ability to track the progress of investments over time.” Already, the IT Dashboard has led to the Veterans Affairs department stopping and reevaluating 45 under-performing technology projects.

In D.C., Kundra quickly discovered that the private sector can be a far better innovator than the government. “Once the data went public, we noticed that individuals and organizations were not only viewing our data, but were actually improving upon our work by analyzing and repurposing the information in useful ways,” said Kundra in an interview with ExecutiveBiz.

It is hardly surprising that private citizens proved better at utilizing such data than the D.C. government was. Private organizations have been beating the government at this game for year. Just compare the Federal Election Commission’s website with the Open Secrets website run by the Center for Responsive Politics. Both allow users to access the same underlying data, the FEC reports filed by candidates for Congress and the Presidency, but one provides people with infromation they can use and the other leaves people scratching their heads.

The Obama administration has done more for data openness than any other administration in history. But even it is getting private competitors. The federal site, is facing direct competition from the private Both present information on contracts handed out under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the stimulus bill. Even Kundra’s is getting a private competitor, which will be able to do things the executive branch can’t, such as integrate state data and legislative and judicial data. Kundra, for one, isn’t discouraged by private competition, telling Information Week “”We don’t believe we have a monopoly on best approaches.”

Here in Virginia, none of this should surprise us. We’ve already seen two great examples of private organizations taking government data and making it more usable, more attractive and more valuable to society. Anyone who follows Virginia politics knows how indespensible the Virginia Public Access Project is. All of the campaign finance data on the site is collected by the government, either by the state or one of the 25 counties and cities that have data available on VPAP, yet next to none of it was readily available to the public before VPAP came along and aggregated it. When VPAP launched, it had to manually enter paper campaign finance records into their database to make them available to the public. Now, they’ve not only been able to integrate with the Commonwealth’s electronic filing system, but also integrate other types of government data, such as election histories and lobbyist records.

Another great example of private citizens improving upon government data here in Virginia is Richmond Sunlight, which is currently a project of the Virginia Interfaith Center but was created by Waldo Jaquith, a political junkie and website developer who set out to improve on the state provided Legislative Information System. Since it’s initial launch, Richmond Sunlight has also become a repository for data. Not only does it include all of the information about the doing of the General Assembly, but it also includes video of General Assembly floor and committee sessions, biographical and electoral information for legislators and even, in a remarkable convergence, fundraising data syndicated from VPAP.

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