An Inside Look at Socrata
December 01, 2020 by
While it is not always the first thing that comes to mind, government is full of “true believers” — people who want to use their skills to make the world a better place and believe that public service provides the best way to bring change. Government roles rank among the top career choices for individuals passionate about problem-solving.
That’s what brought Myca Craven, who is the vice president of product for Tyler’s Socrata solution, into the government sector. Craven, who previously served as a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State, wanted to change the world in meaningful ways, using her skills to improve relationships with other countries and work on human rights issues. When she left the public sector, she found that helping governments use data effectively allowed her to continue to work to bring solutions to the pressing problems of our time.
While working with a variety of countries, Craven learned that one of the most important aspects of effective governance is transparency. Releasing data through open data portals was a forward-thinking step that many countries, cities, counties, and states have already taken. However, new, complex challenges are mounting every day. While the volume of issues can be overwhelming at times, it can also be energizing, especially when designing solutions to overcome them, Craven said.
“I’m most passionate about the sheer number of problems that government is working to solve, and how that could be made easier by bringing data together more holistically,” Craven said. “Think of COVID, opioid addiction, racial equity, homelessness, poverty, unemployment. These are multi-faceted issues that will require data from many sources to understand and resolve.”
Craven recently shared her perspective about open data, why more open governments are looking inward for what’s next, and how data will enable governments to grow more effective in solving problems.
How have today’s challenges encouraged state and local governments to grow their data programs?
For the most part, no one is sitting around in government thinking ‘today is the day I should break down my data silos.’ However, our most critical issues today are cross-over issues that will require data as a key part of their solution. For governments to use data effectively at all, they need data from lots of different places, and they need a place to bring that together in a cohesive way. You’ve got to have robust tools that allow you to both bring the data together and measure the outcomes.
Let’s talk about those data silos. On one hand, government is structured to have silos by design, but on the other, is that design outdated?
It’s some combination of both. There is quite a bit of data that governments have that they need to protect. This leads to silos. However, as you look at the priorities and responsibilities of a public leader in any one area, other related questions arise in adjacent spaces. Open data 10 years ago was a new thing, and it was compelling. It was one of the first times organizations had a platform to cross over those spaces and look at the broader picture. Now we’re seeing a natural progression based on those needs, those processes, and the challenges of today. A lot of Socrata users were saying four and five years ago that they’d like to use these open data tools in some ways that are not public. They wanted a way to continue breaking down silos in the backend work which would remove the technical barriers from the decision process.
As a product leader who has witnessed the evolution of an open data platform to an internal data-sharing platform, how do internal data-sharing programs and open data programs differ?
People wanted to bring data together and make it broadly available, so they put a bunch of disparate data into their open data portals. If they could use it together, they could draw conclusions from it, and because the data was in the same space, they had options they hadn’t had before. The open data piece broke down the silos and put the data in one space. It opened a whole new way of thinking about things. Because the data was open, people didn’t have to go through a long, bureaucratic process. They didn’t have to spend six months getting access to data …
Open data gave a gentler launching point with less bureaucracy. While public leaders see value with open data, there are other pieces of data that isn’t open because it needs to be protected. It may be a social security number or other personal information. Internal data programs give those leaders a way to get deeper data that they might not be able to make public. Since they have the value and the groundwork in place from their open data programs, those pieces come together much easier.
The shift from outward to inward is interesting. Wouldn’t it be natural for it to go the other direction?
From a technical point of view, that is true — it’s fundamentally easier to take data you’re not sharing at all and design the tools that allow you to share some of it, versus taking open data and restricting it. But think about the mindset this evolution has given government. Transparent governments are better governments. Because we built Socrata from the open data direction back, our bias is more toward how we can support the public and help public leaders move policy forward… We want to create an inherently bigger and more open space while also recognizing that sometimes data needs to be restricted for specific reasons.
Where do you see the technology moving into the coming years?
My hope is that it moves toward things becoming easier to use and for people to have more data available to them, for them not to have to go through an arduous process to use it. If you’ve got a question, that data to answer it is available, and you can integrate it with another piece of data as needed.
What specific examples are top of mind right now?
COVID remains top of mind for many of us. As we look at this issue for most governments, there is so much data they need: information on cases and testing from the health department, information from hospitals and nursing homes and prisons, demographic data from the Census to understand equity, tax information to understand impact to revenue, business information on closures and openings, and information about schools. I am sure there is more. For each type of data, it also needs to be aggregated at different levels: city, county, state, country. Putting all that information together in a cohesive way, so public officials can make good decisions and so that they can effectively communicate with the public, is a huge undertaking. Governments that had existing data infrastructures in place at the beginning of 2020 are generally a lot further ahead at this point because they had the tools to address this complexity. Pierce County, Washington, for example, pulled a page from its budgeting for outcomes strategy to allocate and track CARES Act dollars. Buffalo, New York, built an open data hub to share authoritative COVID-related resources with the public.
The more we can create an ability to think about data as the underpinnings of knowledge and abstract the knowledge layer into the way that humans think about it, the more people can engage with data. We can lower the barrier to data literacy and get to a place where data is more ubiquitous and can be used to solve our problems.