Paint a (Data-Driven) Picture

November 4, 2013

By Stephen Goldsmith

This article originally appeared in Government Technology magazine.

With a click of a button, governments can now make a dizzying number of data sets available to citizens. The information, from 311 calls to budget trends, can fundamentally change how the public engages with policymakers. Most of the time, however, the sheer amount of data proves daunting to those unfamiliar with spreadsheets and sophisticated data analysis. How can officials make the data they provide more useful to the public?

Increasingly, public officials recognize that simply providing raw data isn’t enough. One solution to making data more accessible involves visualization. Interactive charts, maps, and graphic aids can transform data, allowing consumers to quickly shift through thousands of data points to view patterns and draw conclusions.

Chicago’s Data Portal includes functions to visualize many of the city’s 955 open data sets, with user-configurable options for various kinds of charts and maps. The city also curates an official site to highlight third-party use of its open data at, many of which take the form of maps or visual apps that make the data more useful. For example, last year civic technologist Tom Kompare built a flu shot finder that Chicago eventually incorporated into its own website.

Visualization also plays an important role in helping officials and citizens alike understand municipal service requests. For example, Citizens Connect, Boston’s 311 app, allows users to view service requests on a map of the city. By looking at all spatially clustered requests, viewers can identify related concerns and even propose solutions through the app. Users can see which neighborhoods have the most service requests, and they can also click on the map to see which requests have been investigated and closed. Mapping 311 data makes it more relevant and usable to different neighborhoods while also allowing the city to ensure it is serving all residents equitably.

Budgets also provide high-value targets for visualization. How governments spend public money is a crucial and deeply contested aspect of governing, but even in the transparency era, citizens labor to decipher thousands of pages of PDFs showing one line item after another. Several cities have begun to address this problem with budget visualization tools that turn the dreary budget PDF into categorized, interactive and searchable charts. South Orange, N.J., implemented one such tool, built by OpenGov, earlier this year. Mayor Alex Torpey has found it useful for internal processes and for communicating the realities of budgeting to the public. “As people begin to understand the complexities of how this money gets divvied up [through the visualization], they understand that they’re not solving problems by just suggesting to cut the budget,” he said. “To me, it’s not just the accessibility piece but the education piece. I want people to understand what we’re doing.”

Visualization drives interaction and responsiveness. The dramatic enhancements in visualization must catch up with the transparency, data analytics and performance movements in order to drive true progress.

Steve Goldsmith is a professor of government at the Harvard Kennedy School. He was formerly the two-term mayor of Indianapolis and deputy mayor for operations for New York City.