OpenGov Voices: Breathing life into open data with ClearGov

Chris Bullock, founder of ClearGov

The concept of driving trust through open government has been around for centuries, but it wasn’t until the advent of the Internet that true open government could become a reality. President Obama’s recent Open Government Initiative has added significant credence to the open data movement. On the other hand, growing fallout from government scandals, such as Wikileaks and the Ed Snowden leaks, has caused an increased distrust in government. These crosswinds have been a driving force behind increasingly open state and local governments looking to drive trust through transparency.

In fact, open government is now a practice that is being followed by thousands of governments and has even spawned a whole new industry in support of this effort. Yet this evolution in government has brought to light new issues and challenges. We now find ourselves awash in seas of data that are accessible, but seemingly overwhelming and difficult to understand.

Most local municipalities share their data through PDFs or spreadsheets. These financial statements contain difficult to understand terminology, funds and transfers that makes the money difficult to follow, and generally lack any context. In other words, if my town spends $55 million on its police force, how do I know whether this is high or low compared to other towns?

Furthermore, many state governments have started to share spreadsheet databases of data points even beyond financial statements. The data is seemingly left there for citizens or journalists to dig into or for a third party to come along and turn the data into insight. While sharing this data is an honorable step in the right direction, some may say this is throwing the transparency problem over the proverbial fence.

These difficult to decipher spreadsheets and reports frustrate citizens and unfortunately feed mistrust. Simply put, people don’t trust what they don’t understand. Posting data that relatively few can decipher is really not moving the transparency needle as intended.

While making data available and open to the public may appease the concept of open government on the surface, it does not meet the true spirit of transparency. Making data more open and accessible is a great first step, but it is just a first step in a journey that we as an American people are just beginning to take.

To truly realize the power of open data, we created ClearGov — a platform that transforms mountains of complex open data into easy-to-understand infographics that benchmark cities against their peers. This benchmarking is incredibly important because is provides better insight for citizens to make more informed votes, as well as enables policy makers to make better data-driven decisions.

And today ClearGov is announcing a new service to allow municipalities to take control of their ClearGov pages and breathe even more life into their open data. By “claiming” their municipal page on ClearGov, local governments can unlock a set of powerful features to either enhance their ClearGov presence or embed ClearGov’s infographics into their own website.

Some of the enhancements being announced today include:

  • Expanded Financials: Add current year and forward-looking data, as well as added granularity so visitors can drill deeper into your financials.
  • Commentary: Cities and towns have a story to tell and our commentary functionality enables local governments to overlay their metrics with critical insider insights.
  • Engagement Tools: People need to feel like the government is listening and want to be able to ask questions. ClearGov empowers local officials to respond and engage directly with visitors.
  • Enhanced Visualizations: Upgraded ClearGov pages enjoy additional trending and charting options.
  • Post Additional Funds: Go beyond General Fund data by sharing Enterprise Funds, Reserve Funds and more.

Making the data easy to understand and digest is a big leap forward towards driving trust and understanding. And when people trust and understand, they begin to get engaged. If participation and engagement are true end goals then open data needs to be brought to life.

If you are interested in leveraging the ClearGov platform for your municipality, you may reach out to us here.

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