Education, government corruption, economic opportunity, disaster response: Stefaan Verhulst sees the opportunity for open data to dramatically improve the lives of people in each of these categories, and, really, way more.
We caught up with the cofounder of the GovLab at NYU Tandon, who’s got a new ebook out, The Global Impact of Open Data, written with Andrew Young. Verhulst and Young are offering the book, of course, for free, open to the public as a PDF download in O’Reilly’s ebook catalog. Verhulst was in Toronto early Wednesday morning, when we caught up with him via Skype, and on his way to an engagement in San Francisco, but he was able to dive into some of the specifics of how to make the world run better.
“The ebook is the result of a large project that we undertook for the Omidyar Network and the objective was to document impact of the use of open data worldwide,” Verhulst explained. “We managed to develop 25 detailed case studies about how open data is impacting people’s lives. And the idea here is not only to be descriptive but to try to understand why there was success, what were the conditions, and what were the challenges.”
"If you really want to make Brooklyn a tech hub, I think there needs to be an open data strategy attached to that."
The following has been edited for clarity, syntax and length:
On Improving Government:
Brazil has developed an open budget transparency portal, which tries to document how government money is spent. As we all know, the current Brazilian government is challenged and is now seeking to address that situation. The portal has gotten more and more used recently as more open data has become available.
The kind of open data that we’re looking at is where the government shares data sets that can be used by third parties to demonstrate how things work. In this case, it was the Brazilian Officer of the Comptroller tried to increase transparency with the use of open data. The model of that portal is now being used across Brazil in local governments as well.
That was an example where open data led to more transparency and ultimately to the whole challenge [former President] Dilma [Rousseff] had with her impeachment. That’s an example of how the sharing of data sets resulted in more fiscal transparency.
On Empowering Citizens:
A typical example in this case are dashboards, a visual portrayal of data, which are often used to compare the performance of public institutions or public services. We looked at examples in countries where performance of schools are challenging, such as Mexico and Tanzania. In both countries, using open data on how schools spend their money, the salaries of teachers, all that data was made available by the government, but you need to visualize it to make it meaningful.
In Mexico, there was an initiative, Mejora la Escuela. And they found that there was corruption taking place, where many teachers ended up being more than 100 years old. They all happened to be born on 12/12/12. And they found a variety of insights into how schools performed vis a vis outcomes, so this provided a tool to demand better quality of education. By making this data open and manipulating it in a way that’s meaningful, there was a real impact.
On Creating Opportunity:
A typical example would be open data used by corporations to better align their services to consumer demands. In New York, the Mayor’s Office for Data Analytics developed the business atlas. Sharing city data in a manner that’s accessible allows small and medium-sized companies get insights about demographics and about other business in the region so you can better optimize your location or your existing business operations. As you know, another project that GovLab has is the Open Data 500 project where we clearly identify that open data has led to the creation of many startups and businesses which lead to economic activity and jobs. An economic policy imperative to share open data will offer help to small (and large) businesses.
On Solving Public Problems:
With open data you can also improve the way you deal with large societal challenges. Here we have several areas where open data has helped us respond to humanitarian crises. In New Zealand, in 2011, there was a major earthquake in Christchurch and the earthquake disrupted large portions of the city. In order to understand where one should allocate emergency response it was important to understand the types of buildings across the city. So by having open property data it allowed one to know what types of buildings were most likely to collapse and where one might be able to help intervene with construction improvements [in the future]. That was combined with crowdsourced data of citizens used to report damage.
And Finally, On Brooklyn:
In Brooklyn there are a variety of potentials according to the four areas I’ve identified. That ranges from trying to understand the need where certain types of services could be needed, whether it’s education or sanitation services. We really haven’t seen the full uptake to that end. We have seen several startups and incubators using open data so we can see the value being generated. I would argue we need more of that. If you really want to make Brooklyn a tech hub, I think there needs to be an open data strategy attached to that to make open data more available for business.
I would say on the one hand New York is unique in that there is a law that mandates the opening of data. In that sense there is a certain leadership role. There is no such law in any other municipality. When it comes to implementing that law there is a whole set of objectives that need to be implemented, for instance developing a data directory that gives you an overview of what datasets are available in the city. In the NYC portal there are 1,500 data sets available but it’s hard to know what is the value of those data sets.
In the New York context there is a need for more evidence of how open data can make a difference. I think open data can benefit everyone across New York City, not just in Manhattan. But to do that you have to do a better visibility campaign to show how open data can be effective to drive demand. That has not been documented well, and that is what we are trying to do.