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August 11, 2017

Exploring Governments’ Civic Data Connections


An individual data point is practically worthless by itself. Only when combined with other pieces of data can it contribute to the emergence of the bigger picture. For those in knowledge extraction industries, one of the biggest sources of data is our various government institutions that publish civic data.

The biggest source of civic data is, the digital clearinghouse for all manners of data collected by federal agencies. The website currently lets anybody access nearly 200,000 data sets free of charge. Here you’ll find full detailed information on a range of issues, including Iowa corn wheat production, average winter temperatures in Florida, and energy generation in Maine.

Third-party vendors use data sets in a range of products. For example, grades banks according to data culled from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s consumer complaint database. You might also have heard of the firm Redfin, which publishes real-estate information – including some that originates from the federal government – in an easy-to-use manner.

The federal government is the largest employer on the planet, and requires the products and services offered by thousands of independent contractors. Much of that data is freely available, but it’s not necessarily easy to navigate, which is where companies like Onvia and its B2G Intelligence System come in.

“Qualitatively, our clients tell us that our sales intelligence technologies for growing public sector sales give them a tremendous advantage in the short and long term – preparing for the next bid, and planning future markets,” Alberto Sutton, senior vice president of marketing at Onvia, tells Datanami. “Quantitatively, we have examples of clients using our full range of products and services that have generated millions of dollars in new revenue and have achieved growth of 30%, 70% and up to 5X to 10X acceleration in sales to the public sector.”

The federal government doesn’t have a lock on data that’s free and useful. LiveStories, for example, gives customers access to a wide range of data collected by various state and local governmental institutions.

The company, which recently nabbed $10 million in venture funding, deals with a whole range of data, “everything from graduation rates to obesity rates to median income, rent, commute times – all the things that describe our communities,” says Adnan Mahmud, founder and CEO of the Seattle, Washington company.

In addition to providing the raw data feeds, LiveStories gives its customers’ data exploration and visualization tools designed to help them extract knowledge and get maximum from the data. “When it comes to working with civic data, 80% of the time is spent finding and cleaning the data, leaving very little time for actual explorations,” Mahmud tells Datanami. “If you’re a data analyst, it’s a bad use of your time.”

Non-technical employees can get value out of LiveStories system, Mahmud says, and even more advanced customers may be tempted to stay within the LiveStories environment instead of working with data from within familiar tools like Excel or Tableau.

“For non-tech person they shouldn’t have to worry about finding and cleaning the data. They should be able to dive right in,” he says. “You don’t start with the raw data to clean up. You go right into actual exploration.”

Another company plying the civic data waters is Accela, which developed its Civic Platform to make it easier for governmental agencies to publish data and for citizens to access it. The company — which also sells a packaged software application called the Accela Civic Platform to government agencies — boasts that it possesses data culled from more than 2,200 communities across the country.

With the clicks of a few buttons on the website, a user can pull up a CSV-delineated data set that contains a list of all the open building permits in the City of San Diego, or a list of all open building complaints filed in Baltimore County, Maryland.

Many of Accela’s customers are governmental agencies, which can benefit from the data collected by their peers. But there’s no stopping commercial outfits from taking and using the data for their benefit. Data collected by the government should remain accessible to all citizens, it says.

“We believe that when it comes to engagement between government and citizens, there is a vast reservoir of innovation waiting to be tapped,” the company says.

Another group that’s worth checking out is, an organization decided to helping governments and citizens collaborate more effectively when it comes to civic data. The organization, which runs on Github, maintains a standard data format for open civic data called OCD.

Data has been called the new oil. If that comparison is apt, then we’ll all benefit by making data as open and transparent as possible. Not every piece of data must exist in the open, of course. But when it comes to the data that’s used to back decisions made by governments or data that’s collected by the government, it’s best to err on the side of greater transparency, which will further the cause of finding justice for all.

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