Bring Open Data to Life, by Putting it in Good Hands

This blog post by Andy Krackov, LiveStories Vice President for Partnerships and Strategy, is adapted from one that originally appeared in GovFresh. At LiveStories, we work with an array of federal, state, and local agencies, as well as nonprofits, who are puzzling through how best to encourage collaboration around data to improve communities. It’s meaningful for us to play a role in this important work, not only in publishing data but ensuring these data are harnessed to achieve local impact. We’ve had the honor to provide input on a range of good ideas taking shape nationwide, including this one from our partners at the California Health & Human Services Agency.

I'm a champion of open data, but I'll be the first to admit that viewing data on a portal sometimes can be unsatisfying. Simple lists of datasets—and even the maps and charts you can create—don’t truly show the intrinsic value of data that’s been freed to benefit communities.

To really capture the meaning and potential of such data, you need people to bring data to life —in the form of local collaborations, news stories, and apps that provide the audiences you’re trying to reach with easy access to information and services. It takes people, not portals, to leverage data to improve the usage and delivery of services; raise broad awareness of issues; and inform local and statewide policymaking. It wasn't enough to use health data from California's health data portal to create stories about measles-immunization rates for kindergarteners in the Golden State. This story came to life only when journalists deployed this information to maximum effect, as the New York Times did with this mapping project. Data just sitting on a portal can’t do that.

And all of these people who seek data for their work need to connect with each other. An advocacy organization in Fresno may want to learn from similar work being done in San Diego. A nurse at a health clinic in downtown L.A. may want to partner with a researcher at USC who’s got expertise with health data. An epidemiologist with the California Department of Public Health may want to team up with staff at local health departments.

As open data efforts statewide expand and mature, the need has become clear for data stakeholders to collaborate in these and other ways. To help address this, the California Health & Human Services Agency (CHHS) has initiated a project—tentatively dubbed the Data Commons— to help Californians make effective use of publicly available data.

This initiative, which is funded by the California HealthCare Foundation, had its roots in outreach work conducted through the California Health Data Project; I was involved with this effort, which was aimed at encouraging local use of data from CHHS’ data portal. The California Health Data Project has helped bring together innovative leaders from CHHS, local governments, and, most importantly, communities—healthcare providers, civic hackers, and advocacy groups—to ensure the state’s valuable health data is finding its way into the hands of people and organizations who can put it to good use.

At an event last year sponsored by the California Health Data Project, we gained an important insight from a Code for San Jose volunteer technologist eager to use his skills to improve his community. He asked how someone like himself, with no experience in health care, would know what to build from these data sets? His question made us realize that we can't expect people without subject matter expertise to know what to create.

But what if he easily could collaborate with a doctor on the front lines of providing care—each one contributing expertise to build data tools to improve life in San Jose? That's the organizing concept around the Data Commons.

Getting from concept to reality involves community input. There are numerous directions the Data Commons could take, and multiple needs it could address. The project team has been interviewing a range of users statewide, including journalists, civic-minded hackers, epidemiologists at county health agencies, and nonprofit leaders. As the project evolves, their insights will help determine the direction of the Data Commons, which is slated to launch this Spring.

Photo by Tom Ezzatkhah.