I spent International Open Data Day at the NYC School of Data, New York City's civic technology an open data conference. It was an inspirational, battery-recharging experience that reminded me what's truly important in life. Along the way, I learned many things:

  1. In 2012, New York city passed the first sweeping open data law that switched the burden of information sharing from the public (think 1970s-era Freedom of Information Act policies), to the government. In short, NYC government departments are legally required to publish data online, for free, whenever possible! (I need to see how my local City of Boston open data policy compares…)
  2. IBM has a Chief Data Strategist, Steven Adler. He's on the board of the NYCLU and got me involved in this event. Thanks Steve! Looking forward to moving the needle on data issues with you in the future.
  3. Most importantly, I learned that the increasing availability of government open data sets around the country are providing powerful new ways for communities to engage on civic issues. Not only can we surface issues, we can also partner with government in operationalizing the monitoring and analysis of problems and solutions.

As Jennifer Pahlka put it today, government needs to know whether policies are working in days or months, not decades. What an inspiring idea!

Jennifer Pahlka
Jennifer Pahlka presenting her work.

One issue the group began to tackle, spurred by the NYCLU, is around economic justice. How can we tell if government policies are playing out fairly in society and having the intended results? An example of a powerful data-driven story is that of "million-dollar blocks." These are city blocks where states are spending in excess of a million dollars a year to incarcerate their residents. Are you surprised million-dollar blocks exist? Is that a good way to spend public funds? Only by surfacing these facts with real data can we begin to have a truly informed public debate.

million-dollar map
Map of “million-dollar blocks” which show state incarceration spending by household.

If you're reading this, you're probably in the tech sector and doing pretty well compared to the rest of the world. A lot of that is luck. Your embryonic-cell self replicated and grew without mutation. Then you were born into a first-world society, were well-nourished, and it was pretty easy for you to get a lot of education without being interrupted by famine, drought, or war. Not everyone—even in the US—is that lucky.

So my message today is: give something back. Even if you only have an hour a month, or a day a week, or just some cash, get involved. Join a local civic hack, find a Code for America project, or update OpenStreetMap. Happy International Open Data Day!

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