Is State and Local Government Data a Utility? Socrata Thinks So

Austin City Hall

Austin City Hall Brandon Seidel / Shutterstock.com

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The company’s latest cloud-based platform automates open data visualizations for easy use by citizens.

Austin, Texas, is part of the vanguard of state and local governments deploying Socrata’s newly announced Data-as-a-Utility platform—making open data engagement with residents easier.

“Bat City” was among the Seattle-based cloud software company’s first municipal government customers in 2011 and has already moved several key datasets, like its 3-1-1 service request information, onto the DaaU platform.

Embracing a visual-first approach, citizens are no longer greeted with tabular views of data, but rather dashboards, though the information can still be manipulated in spreadsheets.

“The focus is on an enhanced and improved user interface,” Austin IT Division Manager Matthew Esquibel said in an interview. “The first few iterations of Socrata were great because they presented people with raw and open data and the ability to make visualizations, but you had to be somewhat tech savvy, in many cases, to make sense out of the data to use it.”

The only reason Austin hasn’t “completely jumped into the pool” with all its datasets, Esquibel said, is because some need to be cleaned of open fields and special characters by various departments with different resource levels.

Currently, six Austin datasets covering information like service request response times and resolutions are DaaU capable, with the goal to eventually migrate everything over.

But the platform didn’t just update self-service automated visualization tools.

“High performance means government working at Internet speed and scale, where citizens and government employees have instant access to facts, visualizations, analyses and comparisons that inform critical decisions like policy-making, voting, budget expenditures and everyday life decisions,” Socrata founder and CEO Kevin Merritt said in a statement. “High efficiency means government that operates like a Swiss watch, with relentless precision in spending and eliminating waste.”

Government program managers can now more quickly curate and publish information for residents using Socrata. Internally, Esquibel has already noticed less time is spent by city hall staffs creating custom views of government data.

Socrata partnered with around 250 government and non-governmental organization customers to develop the platform, including the offices of both the governor and comptroller in the state of Connecticut; Montgomery County, Maryland; the mayor’s and controller’s offices in Los Angeles; and the city of San Francisco.

“We want our data to be accessible not only to researchers and developers, but also to anyone looking to answer a simple question or gain insight into state government,” Connecticut Chief Data Officer Tyler Kleykamp said in a statement. “We believe this new experience will allow us to turn government data into easily approachable and consumable information that helps educate people and improve the quality of their lives.”

Approximately 80 percent of government respondents held their open data program spending steady or increased it in 2014, according to Socrata’s most recent benchmark report.

Other government productivity-boosting features of the platform are drag-and-drop curation and real-time data updates government customers decide on internally. Austin, for instance, has 3-1-1 data update daily.

The platform’s revamped Open Budget application now compares budget outcomes to projections, and a new Open Payroll app highlights government top earners, median salary and overtime hours.

But the biggest addition might just be advanced search across all public information on Socrata’s Open Data Network.

“It’s the same thing that Google does for Web pages,” Socrata Vice President of Product Saf Rabah said in a statement. “We’ve created an intelligent index using real data science on top of raw data, and this is helping people easily search and make decisions about what house to buy, what doctor to see, or what restaurant to eat at.”

Businesses like Yelp, journalists and ordinary residents can search Socrata-enabled governments’ sites by subject and industry, among other criteria and app developers access their APIs.

Austin made a decision to partner with Socrata four years ago and Esquibel said it’s been a good move for the city.

“What we’ve seen is it’s a capable tool, and their making it more user-friendly is really important,” Esquibel said. “We wanted to reach average citizens when we started this, and this is making that less difficult.”

(Photo by Brandon Seidel / Shutterstock.com)

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