A new platform from Esri acts like a social network built on civic duty.

More than 100 American cities host online open data portals brimming with information on crime, housing, transit, traffic, and neighborhood boundaries. Such initiatives have promised to make government more transparent, accountable, and accessible, at a time when the public’s trust is scraping bottom.

But so far, open data has largely fallen short of those lofty ambitions. Part of the problem seems to lie in design: Many online portals are hard for non-expert citizens to use. They keep datasets passively afloat, leaving it up users to know exactly what data they want and how to skim it out, skills which many lack. The numbers are there—but for whom, and for what purpose?

Years in the making, a new tool aims to shift that paradigm. Launched Monday by the global GIS mapping software giant Esri, ArcGIS Hub is an online platform that clusters datasets around specific citywide initiatives, in the hope that people can more readily tap into information applicable to their lives. “Rather than ask what data should be available, this asks cities to think about what people care about,” says Andrew Turner, the chief technology officer of Esri’s R&D Center in Washington, D.C. He estimates he’s spent 15 years theorizing about this tool (and about two years building it with his team).

Take, for example, the city of South Bend, Indiana, an early adopter of the Hub. In some neighborhoods, nearly 25 percent of lots are vacant. For years, resident groups have labored to maintain empty properties in their neighborhoods, out of vested interests in their own home values. The city, meanwhile, has launched a handful of programs designed to keep blight in check, from matching grants for home repairs to legal assistance for property acquisitions.

The Hub lets the city draw these efforts into one common space. A citizen can click through a visual narrative on the city’s progress so far, checking quick stats at abandoned properties in map or charts. If she’s inclined, she can mine full datasets that have long been available through South Bend’s portal, such as demolition orders and code violations, plus additional statistics from federal and state agencies that the Hub layers on.

(Esri)

Rather than mixing in one giant pool for intrepid users to skim out, information sets are grouped into categories of interest (note the graphic above). Unlike “dashboards” cities have built in attempts to engage the spreadsheet-averse, the Hub aims to simplify pathways to the data, rather than the data itself. “You can ask it whatever question you want,” says Turner.

The Hub is also meant to be an exchange. Leaders and locals alike can log onto the platform to organize community meetings, build maps and charts, and flag errors and data gaps: almost like a social network built on civic duty.

Virtually any local issue upon which data can be brought to bear—be it blight remediation, bike fatalities, or tree canopy cover—could be wielded as an organizing principle within the Hub. By participating in an initiative, citizens make themselves known to their leaders, creating, theoretically, a positive feedback loop for accountability.

(Esri)

There are certain things the platform does not address. It presumes that cities (which can buy the service for a price depending on their population size) keep data available in modern, standardized formats—which not all do. Some data remains “closed” because it’s sitting in a dusty filing cabinet.

Similarly, the Hub isn’t designed to streamline government operations from the inside, a goal of many open data efforts. It’s for external, public use—more like a road, says Turner. “The government provides it and says: Here are the rules, now do what you want,” he says. “From there, community grows, businesses form, governments operate, tourists and residents get around.”

Dozens of cities already use Esri’s ArcGIS software to underpin their open data efforts. Long Beach, California, which launched its portal earlier this year, welcomed the Hub’s features as a new way to help citizens track the city’s progress on a local ballot initiative funding $150 million in infrastructure upgrades.

“If I just put the information out there on its own, it adds no value,” says Bryan M. Sastokas, Long Beach’s chief information officer and head of technology and innovation. “But if citizens have the ability to add their own analysis and questions”—for example, about which neighborhoods’ streets are being repaired first—“then we know that maybe there’s different information we should be looking at, or didn't realize we had it, or ways of applying it differently.”

The Hub may be a more welcoming doorway into the open data universe, but its success still depends on an independently motivated citizenry, with some level of search-engine savvy (and access). Pew estimates that 65 percent of Americans search online for government data every year, yet just 10 percent find what they need. Most of them aren’t searching for housing code violations or bus crash rates—rather, they just want to check on a car registration, or the hours of a neighborhood park. The best urban data hub would also answer these simpler, more transactional queries—in addition to serving those spread-sheet-diving, civic-minded heroes among us.

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