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Horowitz: Growing Availability of Government Data Empowers Us

Tuesday, June 02, 2015


Rob Horowitz

The widespread and growing availability of data about government programs and operations are giving interested citizens access to the same kinds of information as elected officials and other policy-makers, enabling them to more actively and constructively participate in advancing their own policy ideas. The combination of the shear amount of information now available online and at our fingertips, governments at all levels more actively sharing this information, and the prevalence of open records laws, not only makes it ,more possible to hold government accountable; it arms citizens with the knowledge they need to devise proposals and back their ideas up with evidence of effectiveness. For example,  detailed budget information, crime and addiction statistics, open space purchases and exising laws and regulations can now be easily accessed by regular citizens.

The impacts of this consequential leveling of the information playing field are only beginning to play out.  But the potential for citizens working together to be more proactive in advancing their own solutions—as opposed to just weighing in on ones advanced by elected officials—gives people who are fed up on waiting for action by the political establishment a powerful tool to take matters into their own hands and to achieve results that benefit all of us.  

Nearly one-in-five American adults are already engaging actively with government data and using it to become better informed and in some cases to more actively participate in providing feedback and ideas on issues facing their community, state or nation, according to a recently released national survey conducted by Pew Research Center “Some 17% of all adults — Ardent Optimists — have truly signed on to government data initiatives. They use online resources to connect with government and have strong levels of understanding about the details of government data. They are highly likely to think government data will improve how government performs, how citizens can impact government and how journalists can do their jobs."

Over-all, opinion seems understandably unformed about the impacts of this data revolution, according to the survey. It is not something most people know much about or have thought at all about. And the strong distrust in government felt by most Americans is an impediment to people seeing the potential positive outgrowth of access to this kind of information.

Yet, even at this limited early stage of awareness, we are already seeing many positive changes in cities that are embracing an open data approach. Cities such as Philadelphia, Boston and New York City are drawing on citizens to come up with their own proposals to thorny neighborhood issues through sharing data and encouraging problem solving. Neighborhood Associations, environmental and civic groups are advancing their own well-thought out solutions to freeing up more open space, providing more active recreation, reducing crime and other pressing issues. 

More widely shared information about government actions can also rebuild badly needed trust between government and its citizens.  When there are agreed upon metrics and more transparency, more approval of government actions tends to follow.The opening up of government data points the way to true self-governance. It is now up to all of us to seize this potential to better meet the challenges ahead.

Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island


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