Driving Decisions with Data

I remember a few months ago, the New York Times  reported about efforts underway in local governments across the country to make government data more accessible through the internet. The article asked a great question: “What good is a pile of data?”

Not much good at all. Statistics are a lot like any other raw material. They don’t do anyone any good until you make something useful out of them. We at Data Driven Detroit are dedicated to taking raw data and turning them into clear pictures of what is happening in our community.

By gleaning data from several agencies, we have been able to compile the “Detroit Parcel Survey,” an unprecedented snapshot of the condition of all of the residential structures in Detroit. This is valuable baseline information for city departments and, eventually for neighborhood organizations.

With birth data from the Detroit Department of Health and Wellness Promotion coupled with our mapping technology, we were able to pinpoint specific neighborhoods in Detroit were teen pregnancy remains alarmingly high. We believe that better and more accessible data lead to better decision-making. 

We are definitely NOT ALONE in this belief.  The economic restructuring that is taking place in our state and region has devastated us.  It has also, however, brought numerous organizations to the table to begin turning things around.  In order to invest properly, they will need up-to-date information and the expertise to interpret it.

Our goal is to spawn useful Web sites and mobile applications — and perhaps even have people think differently about their city and its government. In Washington, D.C., they combine crime data with information on bars, sidewalks and subway stations in order to allow individuals to find the safest route home after a night out. The site is called Stumble Safely.

The City of San Francisco which has created Data SF , a clearinghouse of data sets available from the city and surrounding county.  San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, said that the program “will change the way citizens and government interact, but perhaps most important, it’s going to change the way elected officials and civil servants deliver programs, services and promises.”

Even data about mundane things like health codes and commuting patterns can improve people’s lives when it is packaged and customized in an accessible way. New York City’s Datamine includes directories of sidewalk cafes, property values, horseback riding trails and historic houses.  A Web site called CleanScores  tracks restaurant inspection scores in various cities and explains each violation. After School Special  combines data from San Francisco schools, libraries and restaurants so parents can plan after-school activities and see how children’s nutritional options compare by neighborhood.

The big question is:  Will historically reticent governments release data that exposes problems or only information that makes them look good?  There is also the concern that people might misinterpret the data, creating public relations problems.

But that hasn’t stopped political leaders like Mayor Newsom, who signed an executive order saying city data should be released, and Pres. Barack Obama, who has given a similar directive to federal agencies.

Let the sharing begin!