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Civic Media Project

Eric Gordon, Author

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OpenNY: Civic Engagement through Open Data and Open Platforms


Candice Lanius



OpenNY, available here, is New York State's open data portal and part of recent efforts to create transparency in government at the local, state, and federal level by providing agency datasets preemptively. Realized after New York State’s Governor Andrew Cuomo released an executive order—Using Technology to Promote Transparency, on March 11, 2013—OpenNY is unique as an exemplar of best data practices and for facilitating civic engagement. There have been many tepid efforts in the past to offer information to the public when requested. Yet by considering the inherent difficulties for a public information resource, New York State’s Information Technology Services (ITS) strategically designed their portal and tools to be responsive to a broad constituency.


The website itself is structured around New York's various agencies and authorities, ranging from the Office for Aging to the Gaming Commission. While many data resources may not be of immediate interest to all citizens, OpenNY director Andrew Nicklin describes the database as comprehensive; instead of releasing only a few premium datasets upon request, OpenNY facilitates discovery with breadth and depth across forty-five organizations and fifty million records (Nicklin and Bagul 2014). This access has enabled exploration never before experienced by private citizens. One unexpectedly popular dataset on the location of “texting zones” (the safe areas to pull off roadways to check a cell phone) demonstrates this effect (NY Innovates Report 2014). The frequent traffic to the texting zone dataset reveals an important issue for local citizens that is effectively invisible without OpenNY’s data tools and communication channels. By offering datasets from every level of government, OpenNY enables users to communicate their interests and concerns across a large spectrum of issues: No single issue, such as education, can overwhelm public discourse to the detriment of other daily concerns, like trash pickup.




To explore the data portal, users first navigate to the home page. From there, they can search for datasets by location, select a category, or chose between other’s popular views. After selecting a dataset, a chart and spreadsheet opens with the requested records. From there, users can manage, combine, or visualize the data in many forms including maps, charts, graphs, or timelines.


Data.ny.gov Datasets View

A popular topic in the news recently covers the effect of free radicals on aging. If a user wanted to investigate the presence of these particles in their area, they could  go to data.ny.gov and search for “radicals” or “background radiation.” One of the first results is Environmental Gamma Radiation Readings for Shoreham, Suffolk County: 1995. By clicking on this dataset, the user is shown examples of charts other users have created in addition to the original data records. The following image shows a stacked bar chart for the background radiation of Shoreham, NY.



This chart demonstrates a marked increase in background radiation across the area during 1995 and could serve as the basis for further research or an inquiry directly to the State’s Health Department.

While the chart is an interesting and important part of the experience, the civic value that emerges from this website is not from the datasets alone; value is also generated from the platform which serves as a communication, teaching, and information tool. 

The dynamic interface facilitates the remixing of various datasets together to uncover interesting or important patterns, which can then be shared broadly. 


Poor Data Records

Behind the user interface is a very complex and expensive infrastructure: for OpenNY to function correctly, ITS must continually collect and standardize datasets, maintain the site, and update technology and protocols (Nicklin and Bagul 2014). Image 5 provides a snapshot of common problems: a lack of consistent updates and the presence of poor data records. In this case, the NYC OpenData team responded efficiently to correct the problems. Responsive design and constant problem solving are an important part of ensuring OpenNY is an effective tool for civic engagement in the future.

Government providing both content and a platform for information delivery is fundamentally different from traditional ways of engaging with citizens. The OpenNY data portal manifests the transformative potential promised from information-communication technologies to broaden access and empower the public. Yet, while many benefits may occur as a result of the site’s use, new ICTs can also lack impact if not strategically employed. The OpenNY team has addressed several of these concerns in their initial deployment while they continue to address other impediments explored in Table 1.



Table 1: Impediments for Civic Engagement with Open Data Resources

Ultimately, the infrastructure and ecosystem which supports an open data movement are just as important for civic outreach as the datasets themselves—a point well supported by OpenNY and the efforts of New York’s Information Technology Services.


References 

Nicklin, Andrew, and Kishor Bagul. 2014. “The Open Data Movement and Government
Transparency.” Lecture, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY, March 28. 

State of New York. Executive Chamber. 2013. Using Technology to Promote
Transparency, Improve Government Performance, and Enhance Citizen Engagement
. Andrew Cuomo. Albany, NY. www.governor.ny.gov/executiveorder/95

NY Innovates Report. 2014. “Open Data NY.” http://nys-its.github.io/ny-
innovates/progress/ODNY.html
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