Mar 04, 2014

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx Calls Open Data a Path to Innovation

Anthony Foxx at GovLab@NYU

NYU Wagner’s Governance Lab hosted a March 4 presentation by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, who invited the gathering of startup CEOs, researchers, citizen advocates, elected officials, and staff from local, state, and federal transportation agencies to take up the Department's new Data Innovation Challenge, and use the Department's open data to engage the public in the search for greater efficiencies and innovations across its $70 billion budget.

 “Give the American people a real picture of where we are,” Foxx exhorted the Civic Innovation Roundtable and the GovLab team and director Beth Noveck, the Jacob K. Javits Professor Visiting Professor at Wagner.

The Secretary posed a trio of challenges he said open data could help to answer:

-- How can we better track the dynamic infrastructure needs throughout the nation? Where are opportunities for cost savings and innovation?

-- Where exactly are federal transportation dollars being spent and by whom?

-- Where are the infrastructure gaps? And how can we use federal, state and local data to spot them?

In his first days in office in Washington, Foxx said, he asked for a map showing how and where federal highway funds are used. He was told that none was available. The Department simply did not have the data or tools to determine where every dollar was being invested.

Complicating matters, data standards and labels vary by state, municipality, and agency across the country.

Gale Brewer, Borough President of Manhattan, described the struggle many community boards in her borough face in disseminating information. And the MTA’s Director of Environmental Sustainability, Ernest Tollerson, suggested that throwing the full weight of U.S. DOT behind open data standards could drive down the cost and incentivize other agencies to do the same.

Foxx stressed the DOT’s commitment to the release of large amounts of data, saying, “If we have data ready to go, we’re going to get it out there.” He proposed a "carrot" approach, akin to the U.S. Education Department’s "Race to the Top," to encourage innovation by local authorities.

Meghan Cook, Program Director of the Center for Technology in Government at the University at Albany, lauded the dedicated personnel of the DOT who are committed to open government and open data, but she suggested political support will be essential to making progress, especially in opening up the most controversial data in connection with how the agency spends public funds.

Nicholas O’Brien of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office offered the city's Open Data Law as a possible solution to such challenges and as a model for the rest of the nation. The law makes government data open by default, and requires agencies to justify any decision not to make data public. O’Brien highlighted city apps such as the Capital Projects Dashboard and Checkbook 2.0 that give residents and policy makers greater insight into where tax dollars are going.

The growing business use of open data, which the GovLab is studying through the Open Data 500, were also discussed at the GovLab gathering. Marc Decosta of Enigma.io, a startup that has built its business on making sense of public open data, urged Foxx to release as much data as possible, saying “more is better” from a business perspective.

Co-hosting the gathering with GovLab were: NYU Wagner, NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, NYU Center for Urban Science and Progress, and Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management at NYU.

Near the end of the discussion, Foxx pointed to the large amount of US DOT data already available and hinted of more to come.

 “Can you think of what we can do with it,” he asked?

 

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