The relationship between government agencies and the public is changing rapidly due to the availability and ease of access to big data. With a growing online presence, government agencies are able to connect with citizens, businesses, and the public in new and meaningful ways. Online communication opens up new ways to engage varying constituencies in decisions as well as inform them of the meaningful work and tangible results they produce. This is made possible through presentation of both basic information and large amounts of data, which the public can use to improve quality of life through data analysis, research, app creation, and more. This blog post looks at four different types of relationships the government has with its citizens in relation to big data.
As a side – our team decided to write about this topic due to our recent work with a few state agencies, two of which are listed below. Government has unique communication opportunities and challenges distinct from those faced by private organizations. Nevertheless, successfully addressing those opportunities calls for the same rigorous and methodical approach common with private sector web projects. We hope this blog highlights the intersection between government communication methods and needs with our tested framework for crystallizing communication.
Community/Networking – Mass Big Data
One way to effectively share data as a government entity is to create a community via a well-designed and customized website. Mass Big Data has done this recently with the help of Polar Design, creating a platform that encourages networking and community building around the big data they provide. People interested in and involved with large data sets are encouraged to meet up for hack-a-thons or conferences that promote both professional connections and meaningful innovation. The 37 Billion Mile Data Challenge brought great minds together to “delve into a vast new set of anonymous vehicle-use data and to produce innovative visualizations, applications, and insights on the Commonwealth’s transportation system.” Participants ended up creating multiple projects, from interactive maps to infographics, tables and reports. These projects aim to educate and raise awareness of how Massachusetts residents use cars in order to reduce the impact on traffic and the environment.
Mass Big Data also utilizes a unique jobs board we created that pulls big data jobs from multiple web sites, as well as an industry map which is of interest to people looking into big data vendors, partners or potential investments. These features further reinforce the community that we’re helping Mass Big Data build. Polar Design was also able to support their ad hoc initiative Tech Trek, a multi-day opportunity for local computer science, math, and entrepreneurship college students to meet with industry leaders at Boston tech companies. The SilverStripe CMS platform we use allowed us to easily create a landing page with special content for this event, which is a key part of maintaining a successful online presence that engages users with fresh functionality.
Crowdsourcing – Street Bump
Not only is government providing easier access to data, it is also taking advantage of the reverse and crowdsourcing data from its constituents. The app StreetBump, created by the Boston Mayor ’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, illustrates this well. Residents of Boston can download this app, turn it on at the beginning of their car trip, and the app records bumps it senses to be potholes. This data is sent to the city of Boston, which they can use to determine immediate issues as well as create strategies for long term road upkeep and repair. Leveraging the power of smartphones, the large amounts of data they can collect, and the ability to sort through this data quickly is a great strategy for cities. This app reduces the amount of random surveying of roads and instead allows the city to target specific problem areas when deciding what project to address next. This saves the city money in worker salaries, transportation vehicles and gas, and reduces inefficiencies. Piloted in Boston, it is now running in multiple cities across the U.S.
Within a short time after launching, the city of Boston was able to determine a crucial pattern with this data: the largest number of bumps recorded were not potholes, but castings. Castings refer to any cast-metal feature on roads such as manholes and grates. The issue with this is that these are not owned by the city, but by utility companies. Boston sprang into action and made a deal with utility companies, so that now if these companies want to work in the winter, when it’s harder to complete construction jobs, they are required to repair a certain number of castings per year. As of April last year, 175 had been fixed.
During this emergence of government-provided big data, it is important to ensure that data gets used in as many effective ways as possible. Government websites that supply large amounts of data need to educate stakeholders as to how this data is gathered, updated, and the ways in which it can and should be used. Healthcare data, for example, can be useful for the public as long as government agencies organize it in meaningful ways and educate users as to where this data comes from.
For example, publicly available information such as MA Hospital Profiles Data allows residents of Massachusetts to look at hospital demographics, services, relative price, and financial performance. This information is organized in ways that make it meaningful and useable by the public. Access to this data can help the public make informed decisions about which hospitals are the right choice for their specific needs or see trends in Massachusetts hospital care that are worth doing more research on. The MA government knows this kind of information is helpful, and so creating a website where stakeholders can easily understand and access healthcare data is crucial in keeping MA healthcare one of the best in states across the country.
Connecting – Mass CEC
The last kind of interaction between government and the public is one where the government website serves as a connector between the various stakeholders. Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) does this very well, connecting residents, business owners, government programs and non-profits around clean energy development and implementation.
One of their programs, Solarize Mass, does this exceptionally well. Solarize Mass “seeks to increase the adoption of small-scale solar electricity in participating communities through a competitive tiered pricing structure that increases the savings for everyone as more home and business owners sign contracts.” It connects homeowners who want to install solar panels with trustworthy solar panel installation companies through a community program with more savings as more people participate. The government is able to act as a connector and ensure quality investments for its citizens as well as create business for local solar companies. The MassCEC website is the main source of information for this program, and so illustrates the importance of clear communication and easily accessible data when connecting various stakeholders. Their role as a connector online is crucial in moving forward clean energy partnerships across the Commonwealth.
The use of technology for organizing and distributing data is becoming more and more important for government agencies. Through creating online communities, crowdsourcing, educating stakeholders and making important connections, government agencies are utilizing the increasing capabilities of technology and improving communication of important information. The innovations and insights that come out of this increased flow of data will provide the public with new benefits and improve citizens’ quality of life.