Mapping the Civic Genome: From PDF to Open Data


This week Civinomics published a new workshop on Highway 1. In putting it together, I realized that the most valuable thing I could include in the background section was the raw data: how many cars travel Highway 1 every day (100,000), the 2012-13 budget for Highway 1 ($13 million), the total cost of the Morissey Soquel Auxiliary Lanes Project ($22,057,000).

Guess where I found all of this data? Government PDFs—specifically PDFs available on the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission’s website.

Currently the only way for citizens to see how government money is being spent is to dig into these PDFs. Finding and reading them is very time-consuming, making it nearly impossible for the average citizen to compare how money is being spent across different sectors of government, especially as you go from agency to agency and from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, from city to county to state and so on.

What’s the good news? Well, with Obama’s recent Executive Order for Open Government Data, this kind of information will have to be available in all-digital form, not as a number in a static PDF but as a value in an accessible public database. This means that at Civinomics we’ll be able to comprehensively collect and display all of that budget data alongside other performance data (like traffic on the roadways and average passengers per vehicle, if we’re talking about transportation)—and it won’t require a human to update it every quarter or year.

This is why I’ve realized that the background section for each workshop is not the most valuable bit of information we will provide (this info requires constant upkeep). Rather, in the not-so-distant future, the data will update itself, being pulled more or less directly from sensors on the roads, for example.

But Civinomics will not stop at providing you a government data dashboard. It will provide the brake and accelerator to go with it. By building in a collaborative petitioning and crowdfunding platform, we give the public the tools to comprehend social challenges, then make collective decisions on what to do and aggregate the financial resources to do it. Following me?

Guess what else is locked away in static PDFs? City measures and county ordinances.

The City Council’s decision on the Warriors stadium, or the recent vote on a homeless-related park ordinance—it’s all recorded in PDFs. What Civinomics does is take each of these units of social policy and turn them into a proposal on the platform. That proposal can be developed, voted on by anyone and everyone, easily searched, easily discovered, easily repealed and amended—and it will be just as easy as signing an online petition is today.

This is the problem Civinomics solves: Providing a structure for citizens to see and understand civic data and take direct action on it. And just like everything in our 2.0 world, you will be able to do it from anywhere on your mobile device, not just at a Tuesday night meeting at your local community center where your government clerk gives you a one-page handout that he or she printed from a PDF.


~ Manu

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