Connecting the dots - data & delivery

How digital services, data, and citizen engagement relate

It’s impossible now to disregard three emerging trends in civic innovation — some new, some not, but all now very much in vogue:

  • Open Data: the free publication of civic information for community research, app development, and public accountability
  • Data Analytics: the application of modern data science techniques for policy analysis and service delivery optimization
  • Digital Services: the transformation of previously analog service delivery to citizen-centric online transactions

What’s exciting to me is how these three lines of work are deeply related and complimentary. As I wrote before, in many ways we can see arcs connecting the evolution of civic innovation in this country in others as the movement from any one to the next and then the next. What I think I failed to communicate is the power of the connection between these three efforts; it’s not that any one is more important than the other. Indeed, they are deeply connected, and in fact, when we prioritize any one, we miss out on the broader opportunity: a model for using data for delivery that gets better over time.

Or to use Eric Reis’ popular phrase, when we align digital services, analytics, and open data, we can create a “machine for learning” for civic technology.

The interplay is probably most easily seen in the 311 space. Cities have oft built applications (i.e. digital services) for digital submissions of 311 requests — NYC’s system has famously massive usage. This generates data, both about the issues themselves and also about the service delivery (e.g. time to completion) and the citizen experience (e.g. app usage: frequency, completion, etc), and this data powers both citizen engagement through open data (e.g. beautiful visualizations and analyses) and service optimization through analytics (e.g. smart routing, predictive modeling, etc). In turn, the open data and analytics lead to better digital services for the citizens and city alike by creating more of them (competition here is a good thing) and informing experience enhancements on existing ones.

Put simply: we can put data to work to make delivery smarter and better by weaving together digital services, open data, and analytics.

On it’s face, this surely should not strike anyone as profoundly novel. This kind of thinking is what makes great consumer products so successful: a commitment to continuous enhancement based on user feedback, a willingness to share data and act more like a platform, and a constant urge to build more, better experiences. The challenge, though, comes less in the thinking behind the model, and more its operations.

This is one of my more often used quotes:

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. — Aristotle

Often that’s the case, but making it so is more difficult than it seems. Organizations are too easily organized in silos; teams even lean towards being competitive; and each of us tend to think about that task right in front of us.

Same is true in our public institutions, notoriously designed in silos, and frequently under-resourced. Even in the increasingly energized civic innovation space, it’s difficult to think of starting not just one program (say open data) but three concurrently. (I’ll admit, in my own experience, this challenge and its attendant pressure was real.) But maybe with this picture in mind we can take small steps towards this bigger goal. In Los Angeles, we wanted to work on reducing pedestrian and auto collisions, but lacked either a true digital services team or an analytics shop; instead, we turned to partners. We opened up data on traffic, crime, etc, and turned to grad students to run simple analytics, which in turn we shared with transit apps to incorporate collision “hot spots” into their digital interfaces to reroute around dangerous intersections — that is, to help save lives.

The question is how to move this from one example to the norm, how to operationalize or institutionalize this tricky collaboration between policy, data, digital, and analytics.

I’m the first to admit, I don’t have the answer. But it strikes me as an urgent and fascinating question I hope we consider and discuss as we continue to reinvent our public institutions in the digital age.

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