Good data make better cities

Stephen Goldsmith and Susan Crawford at the Boston Globe: “…Federal laws prevent sharing of information among state workers helping the same family. In one state’s public health agency, workers fighting obesity cannot receive information from another official inside the same agency assigned to a program aimed at fighting diabetes. In areas where citizens are worried about environmental justice, sensors collecting air quality information are feared — because they could monitor the movements of people. Cameras that might provide a crucial clue to the identity of a terrorist are similarly feared because they might capture images of innocent bystanders.
In order for the public to develop confidence that data tools work for its betterment, not against it, we have work to do. Leaders need to establish policies covering data access, retention, security, and transparency. Forensic capacity — to look back and see who had access to what for what reason — should be a top priority in the development of any data system. So too should clear consequences for data misuse by government employees.
If we get this right, the payoffs for democracy will be enormous. Data can provide powerful insights into the equity of public services and dramatically increase the effectiveness of social programs. Existing 311 digital systems can become platforms for citizen engagement rather than just channels for complaints. Government services can be graded by citizens and improved in response to a continuous loop of interaction. Cities can search through anonymized data in a huge variety of databases for correlations between particular facts and desired outcomes and then apply that knowledge to drive toward results — what can a city do to reduce rates of obesity and asthma? What bridges are in need of preventative maintenance? And repurposing dollars from ineffective programs and vendors to interventions that work will help cities be safer, cleaner, and more effective.
The digital revolution has finally reached inside the walls of city hall, making this the best time within living memory to be involved in local government. We believe that doing many small things right using data will build trust, making it more likely that citizens will support their city’s need to do big things — including addressing economic dislocation.
Data rules should genuinely protect individuals, not limit our ability to serve them better. When it comes to data, unreasoning fear is our greatest enemy…”