10 things you can do to engage with open data (Part I)

From fixing pot holes to contacting your lawmakers and more, there are a lot of things you can do with open data. (Photos under creative commons licenses.)

Open data can be incredibly abstract and esoteric if you are looking at a bunch of numbers or spreadsheets devoid of context. And even if you can appreciate a theoretical government dataset being available publically, there’s still the perennial question: “What’s this got to do with me?” To answer that question, here are five concrete things you can do right now to engage with or benefit from open data. (And if that’s not enough, here are five more things!)

1. Report that pothole!

It’s been a rough winter for most of us, and the roads are in pretty terrible shape. Instead of waiting for your local transportation authorities to identify and fix the problem, residents can proactively report potholes and other non-emergency issues (think broken street lights, faulty parking meters or graffitied public buildings) directly to your city or county. A number of jurisdictions employ tools like SeeClickFix or PublicStuff to make this process easier by filing issues online or with a mobile app. Once filed, you can even track the progress, make public comments and create alerts to be notified when the issue is fixed. The data from these reports are also incredibly useful and have been used to visualize complaints, analyze trends and best practices and compare performance against other cities. Improving your community has never been easier or more rewarding.

2. Look up your school district.

Do you have school-age children, or are you a homeowner interested in seeing how your property tax is spent, or do you possess some unexpressed need to boast about your public school district? The School District Demographics System has a map viewer that allows you to browse school district data to your heart’s content. Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau and other sources aggregated for the National Center for Education Statistics, you can peruse data on three themes: “Race and Ethnicity,” “Population” and “Housing and Social Characteristics” of your school district. In particular, you can filter by gender and see a breakdown in the age of enrollees as well as explore the number of teachers, librarians/media specialists and total revenue data of school districts.

3. Contact your representative.

Almost all of us (sorry, D.C.) have two senators and a member of the House who is supposed to be representing our interests. In addition to being lawmakers, the offices of the members of Congress also provide vital constituent services. So whether you want to contact your rep about a specific bill or to request assistance with a specific federal department or agency, you can give your congressional office a call, or an email, or a tweet. Sunlight’s OpenCongress tool makes it easy to find your rep and and their contact info. And if you are really intent on calling them, you can do so for free using Call on Congress.

4. Check your voter registration.

If the previous suggestion offends you deeply due to your dislike for your representative, channel that open data prowess to checking your voter registration or get registered to vote them out of office. CanIVote.org is a handy site put together by the National Association of Secretaries of States that does just that and more by connecting you to your relevant state resources. Think you already know all there is to know about your elections and voter registration? Then sign up to be a poll worker so you can tell others.

5. See if the government owes you money.

It sounds like a scam — and there are many scams built upon the concept of unclaimed money from the government — but USA.gov has a whole (official!) resource page to help you look for unclaimed money. Unclaimed funds occur when the government owes you money due to myriad reasons — such as owed pensions, tax returns, bank failures, mortgage refunds, etc. — and the money is not collected. States can also owe residents money, and according to the NYS Comptroller’s office:

Banks, insurance companies, corporations and the courts are among the many organizations required by law to report dormant accounts to the State Comptroller. These organizations must attempt to notify you by mail and publish the information in newspapers. Despite these efforts, many funds remain unclaimed and are turned over to the Office of the State Comptroller.

The National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators aggregates all the various state unclaimed property websites here.