Photo by justgrimes on Flickr.

Though many citizens understand the basic political process, it is often difficult to figure out how specific political decisions are made. Open data can make it easier to participate in local government simply by providing information.

Open data gives citizens access to information that can be used to improve government services and provide greater transparency. The underlying confusion and skepticism many people feel about government has given way to a nationwide open data movement, particularly here in DC. The variety of data tools available in the DC area demonstrates what is possible through open data.

There are a number of key websites that help local residents learn about and get engaged in their communities. But there are a few ways that local governments could further improve access to data.

Track the performance of DC agencies

At track.dc.gov, anyone can go online to track the performance of various agencies and access information about budgets, spending, news, and performance indicators. The website covers a number of agencies including the Commission on Arts & Humanities, the Board of Ethics & Government Accountability, Child and Family Services Agency, and the Department of Behavioral Health.

The site can be used as a tool for any citizen who wants to find out how the government is using public money. It serves as an additional point of financial oversight and allows each resident to become a government watchdog. Easy access to this plethora of information helps citizens to be informed of the inner workings of government.

Many agencies try to measure their performance internally. With this site, everyday people will not only gain a better understanding of where tax money is allocated, but do their own performance review by looking at how it is being spent, and where the gaps are.

See DC by the numbers

Those interested in city operational data can visit data.dc.gov to see figures for crime incidents, purchase orders, building permits, and housing code enforcement. In order to increase transparency, the city has published 493 data sets from various agencies that use city finances.


DC provided the data for this map of building permits. Image from Map Attacks.


This website has a massive amount of information and makes it easily accessible. Without online access, anyone looking for this information would have to search through government archives, but with this tool, it’s right at your fingertips.

Leveraging this information in a useful way requires some research and a bit of creativity, but the possibilities are endless for involved citizens. It becomes a matter of education so the public knows this information is available to them. Many people have used this data to create interesting visualizations of trends around the city, such as this map of every building permit in DC.

Through open data tools like this one, people can search through records and recognize problem areas that are growing worse or areas that have improved. But the most important step is encouraging everyday citizens and empowering them to take control of the information available to them, and in doing so, improve their neighborhoods and the community at large.

See how the public interacts with DC agencies

Though DC has made great strides towards making information available, there is still room for improvement. Sites like data.dc.gov and track.dc.gov are both tools that use information supplied by the government. As a result, it’s a very one-sided solution to the open data dilemma.


Image from grade.dc.gov.


The other important piece to open data is allowing citizens to communicate feedback to government agencies and evaluate their performance. In this vein, sites like grade.dc.gov collect feedback about particular agencies from social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

The information is then analyzed and used to assign the agency a monthly letter grade based on how good or bad the reviews were. The results are two-fold: citizens have an avenue to report frustrating behavior, and agencies are made aware of problems.

Pushing open data even further

While the open data movement has made progress in DC, there is much more to be done. The government needs to make information more accessible and easier to sort through.

There also needs to be a greater emphasis on collaboration. The agencies must engage the people they are working for in order to figure out what changes need to be made. After that, it’s up to citizens to educate themselves and use open data as a tool to hold the government more accountable.