Indie publishers could find power in partnerships with Open Gov

By Sally Duros

Indie publishers looking for a powerful way to tell important stories can find assistance in the networks of Open Gov technologists liberating local data nationwide.

While the Open Gov movement is largely driven by technologists who are committed to liberating data, it deeply needs journalists at the table.

Some tension has existed between government, technologists and journalists with technologists inside government resisting journalistic narrative as “spin.” But lately voices are rising and asking important questions about context and the critical role of journalists.

“Civic datasets tell stories, and when not properly contextualized, those stories can do more harm than good. Infographics and data visualizations can only serve the public good if they provide the proper context,” said Science, Tech and Civicsystems editor for Shareable, Paul Davis,  in his e-book, “Hacking is a civic duty.”  “To those of us who don’t think of ourselves as hackers but find ourselves applying that ethos to other trades — journalists, community organizers, field researchers, social justice activists, lawyers and policy wonks, and many more groups — let’s join the conversation, contribute our skills to the civic hacker community, and see what we can build together for our cities.”

While technologists enjoy serving up a useful picture of what the data is about, indie publishers can think about the research, curatorial and organizing force of these new tools, which could create powerful action for the public good in their home towns.

A recent meeting of OpenGov Chicago offered a cool assortment of collaborative experiments that hold promise for building something new.

MiParque was a second  place winner in a recent Apps for Metro Chicago contest.  Connected to the Latino Little Village neighborhood here, MiParque  is a “bilingual participatory placemaking web and smartphone application” that allows users to submit and view ideas for improving the community, and receive health, safety and weather alerts via text messages or through Facebook.

Marisa Novara from Chicago’s non-profit civic organization Metropolitan Planning Council presented the app. Developer Pallavi Anderson worked with Novara to create the app, which is a pilot for an online platform useful for community development.

For an indie publisher, a tool like Mi Parque could be an opportunity to take the raw material of citizen journalists — the neighborhood context — and synthesize trends, apply journalistic research, tell stories and curate content to create a record useful for improving services, establishing policy or building community.

To directly address split thinking in the Open Gov world that sees adding narrative to data as unnecessary, it’s helpful to consider Chicago Public School Tiers, an app by Open City that helps the parents of Chicago Public School students identify which socio-economic tier they live in. This is critical information that helps them understand their chances of getting into a selective public school.

To develop the app, Forest Gregg, a sociology PhD student at the University of Chicago, did a deep dive into the volumes of data available on  the Chicago Public Schools website.

“I think the CPS has been a leader in making their info available in public,” Gregg said. “The websites are not easy to navigate but the data is visible, notes are available.”

Still —  available does not equate with accessible or useful. Without context, data can be mind numbing.

Gregg found no contextualization of the data. “The system is not operating the way anyone wants it to operate,” he said. “It is remarkable how the schools think this is working.”

Gregg worked with Open City to move beyond  the information and create an app that was useful within the larger context of parents trying to solve the mystery of applying to a selective public school.

The finished project was a simple interface that allows a parent to put in their address and get the needed information.

An indie publisher / journalist working with a developer could break down the application process and create a narrative that could be an incredibly useful service to the community.  It would also be a powerful report that would hold government accountable for policies that deliver to the letter while ignoring the intention.

Developers and their partners presented several impressive projects at the March 27 meeting in Chicago.  You can see what they are cooking up.

To tap into the Open Gov movement nationwide, check out this calendar compiled by Alex Howard, @digiphile, a reporter for Gov 2.0.

Watch a TED talk by Jennifer Pahlka, the founder of Code for America, which matches software geniuses with US cities to reboot local services.

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