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Data sharing crucial for good governance

The new political wisdom says that there is no progress without trust, and for that you have to be open and transparent, share data and make it easy for people to understand. 

I had the honor to serve as an elected executive in the United States for 15 years. I was the Mayor of Baltimore for seven years, followed by the Governor of Maryland for eight years. Since then, I have been doing some writing, teaching and advising technology clients. I was lucky to have been tipped about the power of these tools by a man who invented the Compstat system and methodology of policing in the NYPD. The ability that we now have to model, measure and map our physical and built-in environment is a big gamechanger.

Earlier, the authority was based on an assumption that the leader had a better view of things than the people. But today, because of the Internet, Internet of Things and GIS, citizens know things at the same time as their leaders. Hence, it is important for leaders to be much more open and transparent about the policies they enact and the actions they take, because the authority now is based on their ability to share with one another what’s happening, rather than just telling people what to do and assuming they will be obedient.

Importance of sharing data with context

The old political wisdom was that the leadership shouldn’t share information and the leader shouldn’t set goals with deadlines. That’s because if you failed, or if people chose to focus on information that showed your government failing on certain fronts, it would give ammunition to your opponents to attack you. However, the new wisdom says that there is no progress without trust, and for that you have to be open and transparent, share data and make it easy for people to understand.

Fake news and information are a major challenge in today’s time. Honestly, I don’t have a complete solution to offer. In fact, if anyone had it, we would not be facing this crisis. I feel that the authorities have to timely disseminate information and give context to stories. The government has to be comfortable with forging operational partnerships with academic and scientific institutions that it doesn’t control.So, it is not just about data sharing, but sharing it in a way that can give a context to it. Those in power have to realize that being open and transparent actually enhances the electorate’s faith in them.

Also Read: Essential to bridge data divide to ensure sustainability — MS Swaminathan

Power of GIS

While serving on the City of Baltimore Council, with my background as a prosecutor in the criminal courts, I watched as our city became more and more violent. I started looking for answers, and noticed that in New York, violence was dramatically reducing. With the new form of governance comes performance measurement, openness, transparency and a cadence of collaboration. The NYPD was reducing crime every year, and so I began to ask as a Council member why can’t we learn from them? I took delegations to New York on fact finding missions. I had a good sense of what we needed to do and how we could do it, and I sold that to the people of Baltimore who voted for it. In the next 10 years, we put our city on the path of biggest crime reduction in America.

There were people in every department who understood the power of GIS and map. They had never been given the freedom to make it the common platform for the whole enterprise of their department, let alone the whole enterprise of the government. We found that the department of public orders had a terrific base map. They had one of the latest versions of Esri’s GIS product and they were using it primarily for planning water and wastewater system. So, we made that our base map and insisted that all silos of departmental information land on that one map.

Overcoming resistance to change

The initial resistance was on expected lines, but in our city, the Mayor has a lot of executive power. We were actually able to get up and running very quickly. We appointed a new police commissioner and started running Compstat within 30 days of my swearing-in. CityStat was implemented in all departments in the next few months. We found that a lot of the information was already being collected, but the problem was that nobody could see it holistically. The change didn’t happen in one giant bang; it was incremental and steady. Even if you can make 1% progress every two weeks, I don’t care what the issue is, that is a lot of progress over the course of a year.

When we got the Innovations in Government Award from the Kennedy School for the 311 system, I joked that our big innovation was that we started measuring the output of government instead of just inputs. GIS is the integrator of all of this data and action.

Creating healthy competition

In the initial phase, everybody feared coming before the Mayor. Over time, people came to appreciate the fact that only here can a Sanitation Director meet with the Mayor and his entire team for one full hour. It turned into a problem-solving dialogue. By keeping a compelling scoreboard and by focusing on the map — who is doing well and who is really excelling and delivering better services for the citizens — the leaders start to rise. The map gives you the ability with the compelling scoreboard and the collaborative routine to lift up the leaders. And once you do that, it’s no longer a meeting of fear.

Once we got 311 up, in the slower times, we would do outbound calls to citizens and ask some basic questions about their experience: was your call handled courteously; were you given a customer service number; were you given a timeframe within which you could expect the service to be delivered; and was it in fact delivered in that timeframe. Based on people’s responses, we rated different departments. A delivery plan for such initiatives needs to have strategic goals with deadlines. In the city, pretty much everyone knows what the goals are. For states, it becomes a little more complicated.

Some of the programs that I started are on hold, but some of them are being continued. It takes a lot of work and executive discipline to maintain that cadence of collaboration and accountability. Our schooling system was number one in America for five years in a row, and in four years, we slipped to number 8. We had driven violent crime to a 35-year low, but now it is gradually increasing. The bureaucracy in many instances is still measuring what matters and they are still pursuing that. There is no doubt in my mind that this new way of governing — with openness, transparency and public deadlines for strategic goals — is the future.

Data privacy concerns

It is not only important to have the debate, but also to be able to craft the solutions, whether in law or regulation that address those concerns. We used to routinely see the granny photos of somebody robbing a 7/11 and the TV announcer saying, “if you have seen this person or anybody that looks like him, call the police”. But now, the ability to enhance that photo and match it against an array of photos keeps someone from being murdered or robbed on gunpoint. These are powerful law enforcement tools, but they have to be used in accordance with the constitutional rights, and the authority should never be abused. We have to always find that balance.

I think the key is openness and transparency. The Baltimore Mayor and his team recently witnessed a PR disaster, when without telling anyone, they started experimenting with the use of a drone high above the city to do what the police helicopter did. The fact that they did that secretly without telling anybody led to all sorts of suspicion and distrust. Had they said at the outset, look, we spend $15-20 million a year to maintain a helicopter capacity, and for a fraction of that a drone might perform the same function or better keep officers from losing their lives in high speed chases.

Acting responsibly

The very openness of the Internet, the ability to connect over vast distances instantaneously, all things that you would think would be democratic were used in my own country to hack our democracy with Russian troll firms posing as citizens in the new public virtual square of Facebook and the Internet. One would hope that citizens become savvier and the consumes of online information become better judges of what’s real and what’s not. But I think, it also means that we have to come up with better ways to authenticate information. The key I think is to be able to authenticate, curate and validate, and to provide context much more instantaneously than responsible authorities are accustomed to doing today.

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