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

From submitting a FOIA request to examining crime maps and more, there are a lot of things you can do with open data. (Photos under creative commons licenses.)

Need ways to make open data more tangible in your life? Here’s the second installment of our miniseries covering ways to engage with open data. Missed Part I? Check it out here.

Five more ways you can engage with open data…

6. FOIA something.

Technically, this isn’t necessarily open data; since you need to employ the Freedom of Information Act to access the information, it isn’t very … open. However, FOIA and open data have been colluding and converging for some time now, with a number of cities and agencies proactively disclosing information before anyone has to ask for it. For those other jurisdictions not on the fast track to openness, FOIA requests are still a highly effective way of showing government that citizens are engaged and have an interest and need to access government data. FOIA can also be an effective tool for discovering what data is even available from government — as we learned in our successful FOIA of the Office of Management and Budget. Due to our FOIA, we were able to get the U.S. government to make available agencies’ internal indexes of their data holdings (also known as Enterprise Data Inventories). So, want to file a FOIA? Our friends at MuckRock make it easy with their tool.

Note: While FOIA is a formidable tool for open data, the law is also plagued by “overly broad exemptions, unnecessary fees and obtuse provisions that protect secrecy.” Help us tell Congress to #ReformFOIA here.

7. Explore crime data in your neighborhood.

Jurisdictions around the country have been opening up crime data to the public, fueling numerous crime maps, apps, data visualizations and more. The best way to find crime data in your neighborhood is to start with your local police department’s website to see if they have publicly available data and searchable crime reports. Here in D.C., the Metropolitan Police Department’s Crime Map allows you to search by address, police districts or other points of interest (like schools) to see block by block data on crime committed in the vicinity. In addition, some newspapers like the Los Angeles Times also produce interactive tools to explore neighborhood crime data. Third-party tools like CrimeReports or SpotCrime can also serve as an entry point to exploring crime data nationwide with their user-friendly map interfaces (albeit sometimes incomplete data). Sunlight has been working with the Open Data Census Project to identify and evaluate crime open data available from a number of cities. Additionally, we are amassing a searchable inventory of publicly and privately produced criminal justice data. Click here to learn more, leave some feedback or submit your local data.

So, what do you do if crime data is not available in your community? You can advocate for it with your local government using our recommendations to releasing crime data, a part of our Open Data Policy Guidelines. In lieu of local data, check out Statistical Analysis Centers (SAC), state units or agencies that collect criminal justice data and provide relevant policy research. The Justice Research and Statistics Association has compiled the websites for all the SACs here. On a national level, the FBI aggregates state data into annual Uniform Crime Reports to provide an overview and analysis of crime in the United States. You can also access the national sex offender registry published by Department of Justice here.

8. Track changes in your tree coverage.

Has the redevelopment in your neighborhood left your street a little less green? You can find out with Global Forest Watch, an interactive online tool that lets you see in near-real time the changes in the world’s forest landscapes. This innovative resource lets you browse by the gains and losses of tree cover or search by address on the map. The tool uses spatial satellite data from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Landsat project, which is then assessed by the University of Maryland and combined with a wealth of (mostly open) data from governments, NGOs and companies. In addition to tree coverage data, you can also explore data on forest fires, mining, logging, palm oil production and wood fiber plantations. Global Forest Watch also provides country profiles and rankings, with a full download of datasets available (+1).

9. Help identify local government resources.

As anyone who has ever moved knows, government services vary widely from community to community. Often times, the best way to find out what resources are offered is by word of mouth from neighbors! County and city websites, notices in public buildings or flyers at community events can also serve as an invaluable intel in identifying what local government services are available. With the diversity of resources and varying times of service, the open data challenge is identifying all that your local government has to offer and a timetable of availability. To do that, consider creating your own index of county or city services and sharing that resource with your local community listserv or neighborhood social network like Nextdoor. Bonus points for creating the index on an open platform like Etherpad or Hackpad (or even just an open Google doc) to allow for crowdsource and collaboration.

So what are these local resources we speak of?

Community services may include e-waste and household HazMat disposal (such as computers, paint products, fire distinguishers, thermostats, pesticides and others) as well as recycling of bicycles and other small metal items. Seasonal services such as garden waste pickup, mulch delivery, leaf collection or Christmas tree recycling are also popular services commonly offered by local governments. City managed donation centers and collection efforts of eyeglasses, lines, microwaves, wheelchairs and winter coats are convenient and resourceful ways of disposing unwanted items while helping those in need. Together, we can better utilize government services, save money and serve our community.

10. Become open data.

While numerous ways to engage with government open data have been covered, there is no better way to embody open data than with Open Humans. This project turns to participants to volunteer their personal health data and transform it into a public resource. With the goal of breaking down “data silos in human health and research,” members can aggregate and share existing data from the various research they participant in. Currently, Open Humans is connected to three activities: American Gut, GoViral and the Personal Genome Project. Click here to learn more about public data sharing or here if you are a researcher interested in connecting your study or using the public data.


Hope these ten things have left you feeling a bit more connected with open data, your government and your community. Have other ways to engage with open data? Share them with us below in the comments section!