Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Apps - Leading the Way in Civic Engagement

There are several factors which make municipal Open Data portals and policies successful, but the number one factor is civic engagement. Without the public actually requesting and using the data provided by the government, there would be no growth, no drive for these programs.

Now the average citizen does not have the technical knowledge to understand the raw data provided in machine-readable format. But with the rise of mobile apps, information from open data can be applied in a way that the large majority of the population can understand and make use of.

Government initiatives, like one in Queensland, Australia, offer cash prizes to developers who can use Open Data to create apps which are useful to its constituents. These apps are judged in 4 different categories, but all revolve around benefits for the public. One such app which has been created for this contest details where all of the hidden speed cameras are located in Queensland. This contest not only creates excitement around open data by inspiring developers to create apps – the best way to increase civic engagement, but also brings the open data policies into the public eye, encouraging public participation.

Here in the US, there are non-profit groups, like The Knight Foundation who provide funding for start-ups who are using Open Data for the improvement of the relationship between governments and their citizens. There are two programs from the most recent distribution of funds from the Knight Foundation that stand out for their ability to engage communities with Open Data. The first is called Open Gov for the Rest of Us and it uses open data from the Chicago portal to provide more information to residents of low-income neighborhoods on foreclosure, immigration, crime and schools. This is not only an app, it also incorporates a drive to increase online access in those low income areas. This is an entire civic engagement program – using the open data of Chicago to improve the lives of the constituents and encouraging them to be more involved in the type of data released by the government. Another program that received funding from the Knight Foundation is a simulator that gathers open data from the IRS and Census Bureau and governments in order to analyze the effects of public policy. For instance, this simulator could be able to project the impact of a tax hike on a state’s education budget. This increases accountability for government institutions while increasing civic engagement.

Not all apps are so large-scale. The City of Raleigh Open Data program has released datasets which makes it possible for the RGreenway App to display and integrate the trails and parks in Raleigh, NC. According to, the datasets provided through that portal have lent themselves to 349 citizen-developed apps and 137 mobile apps. It’s clear that the datasets from these Open Data portals are being used in a variety of ways and there are many apps being created that increase civic engagement.

There is, of course, a long way to go before the public is completely, actively involved in any open data programs. But the best, most effective way to increase the use and interest in released data sets is to turn them into apps-  currently the most effective way to get citizens interested in open data.

- Katie Berryann 

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