Solidifying the impact of open data innovation in the government – NYC311

NYC311 has made great strides in evidencing the power of data analysis and innovation within the government, through opening up its data. Now it needs to build capacity in-house and answer tough questions to solidify the long-term impacts of open innovation.

Our government is the definition of a ‘customer-centric’ organization – replace customer with citizen. Therefore, finding ways to understand and engage citizens should be the foremost priority of the government. Therefore, crowdsourcing information from citizens, and more recently through sensors, provides a powerful opportunity for the government at large to provide better public services in response to its citizens’ needs. Unfortunately, government is not known to have the ‘best’ technical or analytical talent. Therefore, governments have begun to ‘open’ their crowdsourced data to engage wider talent to analyze the massive amounts of data collected. Open data enables citizens to live their promise of participatory government, keep their government accountable, and design solutions that may improve their day-to-day.

However, for open data initiatives to work, citizens need a significant amount of data to work with. One example of an organization that has this large amount data is a city’s 311 – take, for example, NYC’s 311 system that processes several thousands of transactions every day.[1]

NYC311 provides the public access to various government services and information through a customer service model[2] – it is a one-stop shop for managing non-emergency citizen calls. Citizen requests are routed to the appropriate government agency and documented in a citizen management system. NYC311 also includes in its mission statement: “help Agencies improve service delivery by allowing them to focus on their core missions and manage their workload efficiently” in its mission statement[3]. Opening up NYC311’s data directly helps with that.

Opening up NYC311’s data was the biggest innovation across local governments that we’ve seen in the past decade. However, according to the former Chief Analytics Officers and Chief Technology Officers of NYC and Boston, respectively, long-standing impact by way of change in government agencies based on open data analysis are still in its early days. Three challenges stand out: (1) are there enough incentives for citizens to indeed analyze the data in a meaningful way?, (2) is the data that is ‘opened’ accessible in an easy and structured enough way for citizens to use the data?, (3) are government agencies connected enough to 311 to actively take into consideration the open data analysis?

The first challenge is mitigated in the short-term because of today’s booming start-up and technology ecosystem. Software companies face active competition to showcase their value, young start-ups could use open data to gain publicity and credibility for their work. For example, Vizzuality and Carto, are both companies that have built decision-making dashboards for city government officials[4] – a ‘new’ concept and a good marketing tool. Additionally, the rise of interest in data science and data analysis may provide new students the opportunity to test and develop their skills through open data. NYC Open Data hosted a citywide competition for compelling city projects built on open data sets to further incentivize citizen participation[5]. In the short term, there seems to be enough talent that NYC can capitalize on, given the excitement around ‘data science’ and the lack of publicly available data sets for companies and people to experiment on. The second challenge is being improved upon more and more. As in-house technology teams see how data is being used, they are iterating on data formats, structures, and tools by which data is made accessible and updated. Finally, for Open 311 data to make long-standing impact, government agencies need to buy into the analysis and have the capacity to adopt changes based on it. Initial analysis and dashboards are good to help evidence the potential impact of data analysis. For NYC311 to be successful, they should continue to evangelize projects developed by open data and advocate for data literate leaders.

The long-term risk is that talent interested in analyzing open data may decrease as the tech ‘hype’ passes. It will be important for 311 to invest in in-house technology talent. Additionally, the types of analysis done on open data could become stale and frankly, unhelpful, unless NYC311 continues to improve upon the data that they collect – in terms of data diversity, depth, and accessibility.

Additionally, NYC311 needs to grapple with the hard questions, such as – is the data collected by 311 in any way biased by race, socioeconomic status, gender, ethnicity, or other subgroup? Propensity to complain or make a request often has historic ties to whether or not citizens believe in and trust their government. Any analysis upon this 311 data set – whether it’s pure data stratification, insight generation, or machine learning, could perpetuate any biases[6].

NYC311 has made great strides in evidencing the power of data analysis and innovation within the government, through opening up its data. Now it needs to build capacity in-house and answer tough questions to solidify the long-term impacts of open innovation.

[1] About NYC311, Our Data. The Official Website of the City of New York.

[2] About NYC311, Our Mission. Official Website of the City of New York.

[3] About NYC311, Our Mission. Official Website of the City of New York.

[4] Campbell-Dollaghan, Kelsey. NYC Gets a Dashboard. Fast Company (Jan 2017)

[5] NYC Open Data Announces Winners of 1st Annual Citywide Competition.

[6] Estimating Bias In 311 Service Request Data. Urban Intelligence Lab.


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Student comments on Solidifying the impact of open data innovation in the government – NYC311

  1. This is a great read. However I’m not sure that I agree that interest will fade as the hype of the new data available will leave. I see there being a lot of opportunity for universities to train their students on these data sets, let their students do projects on it. And if people are frustrated with how things are working, I think they will make the time to look at the data. Not in the least because America believes in Service.

  2. Awesome article! Besides the idea of the data being potentially biased, I have another concern. Does opening up civil data to public use present any sort of privacy concern? In the era of data scandals such as Cambridge Analytica and Equifax, data privacy has become a hot topic. Would citizens object to having any of this data spread widely? Perhaps none of the data you are referring to here contains personal information…but for this idea to really gain traction and become beneficial to the government, I would think that this concern would need to be discussed!

  3. Very interesting article! I am surprised that governments are experimenting with open innovation. I definitely agree with the benefits that distributing data among the community implies in terms of fostering the participation of citizens to improve their own communities.
    In my opinion, the analysis could be divided into 2 different parts. The first one is related to the government sourcing data from citizens, which I think they are currently doing so via the 311 for instance. But the second part is linked to how the government drives innovation using the crowdsourced data. In this part, I have a different perspective from the one stated in the essay, especially in terms of what open innovation actually means. From my point of view, it is all about empowering the community to use open platforms to analyze data and ultimately come up with creative solutions to the government problems. So even though I totally agree with the need to analyze data, I think that building in house capacity might hinder the benefits of distributed innovation.
    That being said, I feel that the government is in the very early stage of the distributed innovation process. Although it is crowdsourcing data, there must be a substantial investment in an open platform to attract talented and creative people not only from the local community but also from different parts of the world, to leverage the value of open innovation.

  4. What excites me the most about the distribution of these large government data sets is the potential for truly additive public work to be done. There are many issues that are too small or obscure for the government to dedicate their attention to, so this data creates the opportunity for people who are passionate about specific issues to pitch in. We’ve seen motivated experts build a world-class free encyclopedia, and I like to think that we could see a similar trend in public administration as data science skills become more prevalent in our society. If the government can establish an efficient and accessible path for review and implementation of outside analyses, I think we would introduce a lot of innovation into public administration without the taxpayer spending that would be associated with funding a large government data science team.

  5. This is a really interesting way for the government to engage with data and with younger generations who might be more interested in innovation and data science. However, I worry that the vast majority of citizens will still be unable to engage with this data due to a lack of data analytic capabilities. Or worse, they may analyze the data in faulty ways and arrive at fraught conclusions. As with all data, it is critically important to understand how the data is collected and its limitations to be able to correctly interpret any findings. Do citizens even have access to the computing power to analyze such vast quantities of data? These are a few concerns I have with this open innovation in this context, particularly in light of the type of data the government might release. Lastly, I wonder if the computing systems are similar enough across branches of government to be able to aggregate the data in a meaningful way. Great work!

  6. This is a really interesting read and initiative! For me, the main concern is credibility of the submissions that the government receives. For example, if a random person submits a perspective to 311 based on an analysis they did – how does the government determine whether the analysis is accurate? In cases where the submission is supported by an institution or academic, that might not be a concern. However, if the submissions are largely from unqualified citizens, or worse, from malicious actors, the government would need to either ignore them or spend resources verifying them. A potential solution would be to engage another organization or the community to also participate in a peer review process for the submissions. Ultimately though, I do think this is a step in the right direction for governments because as you mentioned, it gives people the opportunity to engage with and support their government. Furthermore, it allows the government to tap into the latest technologies that they might not otherwise have the resources or awareness to incorporate. Great article!

  7. The thing that most interests me is how data privacy will play a role in this model as more data sources are opened up for private use. More data is needed to get better insights, but how will governments protect data from being used against them, and how will future sources of data about citizens be anonymized for the protection of the citizens. What will the people think about having corporations searching through and analyzing information about their daily activities.

  8. Overall, the idea of opening up data to the public is interesting. I don’t understand what opening up NYC’s 311 service requests to the public achieved however. I can see the data could serve as feedback — now, everyone can see what services’ numbers are in high demand. I’m guessing this would mean certain organizations will now know that they are more sought after than others, and/or that these organizations’ numbers are difficult for the public to access. However, this article seems to suggest that the possible changes are much more ambitious than that. I’d like to see exactly what those ambitious use cases are.

  9. This is a very interesting concept! I love the re-framing of government as a consumer-centric business, since so many people find their governments unresponsive and disinterested in fixing common frustrations of urban life. If this initiative has the potential to fix that, I am super keen to see where it goes. I worry, however, that just changing the way data is input and displayed through NYC 311 will not actually lead to better outcomes for the city. I assume that much of the reason they are unable to fix everything that gets reported through 311 is more of a budgetary constraint than an information overload. Is there anything the city is doing to ensure that the money allocated to these projects will be in excess of what has been allocated in the past?

  10. This is a very interesting concept!
    One aspect that comes to the top of my mind when analyzing this article is how can NYC 311 initiative generate high quality sustainable products for the society, instead of one-off analysis only? In my opinion, this will only happen when there is an incentive for individuals and companies to come up with solutions. For example, is there a way to allow startups to build apps in areas such as transportation and security, helping some of the city problems while also making a profit?

  11. Thank you for sharing this information. I’m actually curious if we can take this one step further. In other words, once an individual is able to successfully utilize the data to come up with a solution, can private companies then go ahead and implement that solution? The way I see this is that if individuals are able to use the data to find patterns and trends, but the government refuses to act on it, people could quickly become disillusioned and the whole process could go to waste. Curious to hear your thoughts?

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