Open Data Fosters Civic Innovation- The NYC Open Data Contest, 2018

By Prathima Appaji

Open data has significant potential to foster civic innovation. In a recent report, McKinsey found that open data has the potential of adding over $3 trillion to the economy.

Taking note of the possible social and economic benefits, cities are organising hackathons in an effort to encourage people and the private sector to effectively engage with open data in providing solutions to urban problems. The 2017 Smart City Hackathon saw entries from 22 cities using data and technology in finding solutions to contemporary urban challenges.

But where does this data come from? While private individuals and corporations collect information and data, it is the state that continues to be the significant player in data collection. The sheer quantity and quality of data that the state collects or has the potential to collect, leaves tremendous value untapped. It is this data that should be made open for creative uses to increase efficiency and improve quality of life – privacy concerns permitting. Moreover, since government data collection is funded through taxes, it can be suggested that it is public data and that this data deserves to be open for all people to use.

Transparency projects, public education and community participation, economic benefits, enhancing research, and accountability for private business are only some of the few avenues where open data can be used to create value for all. Danish website Folketsting is an exciting example of civic participation in using open data to track Danish parliamentarians’ policies and lawmaking process. The British government is going a step further by sending 30 million households an annual summary on how their tax money was spent. The summary explains in detail how the calculations are made and what portion of each households’ taxes are spent on various sectors. This project, in its 4th year, aims at ensuring not only that data is accessible, the public has the opportunity to be informed participants and empowering them to take an active part in public spending.

In the private sector, data provides businesses with the ability to improve their existing products and services, innovate new projects, while contributing to the overall economic well-being of the society. Cross-sharing data has huge benefits and can have lasting impacts, such as in the health industry, efficient household energy consumption, and in better parking by saving over 2000 hours. This was the intention behind President Obama’s initiative, that businesses could leverage government data to run their services more efficiently. An example of this is Zillow, an online real estate database company, uses open data to forecast home values. Started in Seattle in 2006, today the company generates over $78 million and employs 500 people – and has increased transparency in the housing market.

Recently, the New York City (NYC) hosted its first Project Gallery Open Data Contest, an initiative of the City of NYC and the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics. NYC is one of the more open data cities in the country, and in the wake of the NYC Council Open Data Law, 2012, the contest received over 30 submissions. The competition goal was to explore how the public sector might benefit if more data is made open.

Here are the three big winners for the contest:

The Data Science Award went to PlanTwise, designed by Niki Athanasiadou. The website collates historical data on the lifespan of NYC city trees, and using an algorithm recommends the species of trees that are most likely to survive in a specific NYC area.

The Most Creative Award was given to An Interactive Visualization of Street Trees submitted by Allen Yee of cloudred. The website offers a sweeping view of the different types and quantity of trees planted in NYC five boroughs.

Finally, the Mayor’s Civics Award and the Open Data Award were awarded to, submitted by Bitsy Bentley & Hadassah Damien of Participatory Budgeting Project’s Participation Lab. Using NYC Open Datasets, the website gives an overview of all the local projects that have been implemented through participatory budgeting. In this manner, residents of NYC can analyze the impact of a particular project, the needs of their community and the amount of funding required for a project. To date, NYC has allocated $1 million per year through participatory budgeting in 60% of the City Council Districts. All projects that have been voted on from 2012-2017 are available on the website along with the status reports on the projects implemented.

These examples demonstrate a clear path toward urban innovation: where data is open, governments encourage corporations to cross-share data, and businesses and individuals use this data to provide creative solutions for contemporary problems.

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