Using Data & Technology to Enhance Governance

A group of The Council of State Governments’ members recently visited the headquarters of CSG Associate member Esri, an international Geographic Information System, or GIS, software company, in Redlands, Calif., to discuss how to use data and apps to make better policy decisions in their states. 

“More mayors lose their jobs over snowplowing than any other reason,” said Richard Leadbeater, public relations manager for Esri. 

Leadbeater flashed a map on a screen showing how data can be used to help make better decisions about snowplow deployment.

In Ohio for example, for the 2013-14 winter, the City of Columbus Department of Public Services started using a new GIS web application they named “Warrior Watch” to internally monitor both real-time and historical performance of the city’s snow and ice removal activities. Moving to a data-focused GIS platform helped the department to manage the complexities of more than 100 snow operation vehicles and a street network of approximately 2,000 miles.

“Every day as legislators we have to make important decisions about where to spend our taxpayer’s money,” said Delaware state Rep. Helene Keeley, who attended the event. “We rely heavily on data to help us make those decisions.”

Keeley and other attendees at the session discussed how difficult it can be to access data and information that is trustworthy.

“We ask a lot of questions about how the programs we fund will benefit our constituents and what those funds will be used for,” said Keeley. “Isn’t it just as important that we ask where our data is coming from and if we can trust it?”

Reliability isn’t the only obstacle attendees identified when it comes to using data in decisions—it also needs to be presented in a meaningful format, especially in a world of big data. Big data encompasses huge datasets that include everything from traffic patterns to grocery purchases. But, as Leadbeater explained, big data doesn’t have to be intimidating. 

“The biggest, the oldest example of big data? Weather data,” said Leadbeater. When he asked who had checked a weather app that day, almost everyone raised a hand. 

Weather data is a good example of how big data has been made easily available and delivered in a format that can be used quickly to make decisions. 

“You don’t just get data, you get maps and information in a usable format. Data doesn’t need to just be open, it also needs to be accessible,” Leadbeater said. “The bottom line is—what can data do to help?”

For Rep. Mark Nakashima, the visit to Esri spurred a flurry of activity after he returned home to Hawaii.

“At Esri, I became much more aware of the power of geographical and demographic information available to us in crafting and shaping policy,” said Nakashima. “After returning home, I made an appointment with our local GIS Office, and already have them working with me to gather information on the occupational skills in one of our districts to fashion meaningful legislation. Next month, my staff will be participating in training with our local Esri representative.”  

Sen. Jorge Suarez | Puerto Rico
“I use Twitter a lot to keep my constituents informed of my work, bills, events and news that are important for my district. I was also very impressed with the technology that we learned about (at Esri) that can be used to implement smart cities. Mapping is everything.”

Rep. Ryan Lynch | Montana
“My favorite app is probably Twitter. The ability to quickly gauge constituents’ thoughts on different issues is amazing. You can really get a feel of what is being discussed and the significance within different communities. It is a great way to share news stories and ideas with folks back home.”

Rep. Marvin Abney | Rhode Island
“My favorite app for political purposes is called Vote Builder. It is a powerful, easy-to-use tool that helps me manage=14,000 constituents. I can respond real time to who my constituents are, where they can cast ballots, how to contact them. The app helps me develop canvassing plans and stay informed on issues most important to voters. I can create response letters and generate mailing lists. Most importantly, I can view the voting history of constituents in my district.”

Sen. Michael Moore | Massachusetts
“Facebook is still the best app for communicating with my constituents. Beyond a convenient way for me to respond to local needs, it allows me to update constituents about legislative efforts and provides a forum for the community to discuss important ideas.”