Data Visualization for Better Government

If you live in one of more than 300 American cities, you may already be familiar with the 311 service. But 311 can do more than fix potholes, or get a noisy dog to shut up. 311 can also provide a better way of finding and fixing big problems in cities. As Wired Magazine explains:

The service also helps city leaders detect patterns that might otherwise have escaped notice. After the first survey of 311 complaints ranked excessive noise as the number one source of irritation among residents, the Bloomberg administration instituted a series of noise-abatement programs, going after the offenders whom callers complained about most often (that means you, Mister Softee). Similarly, clusters of public-drinking complaints in certain neighborhoods have led to crackdowns on illegal social clubs. Some of the discoveries have been subtle but brilliant. For example, officials now know that the first warm day of spring will bring a surge in use of the city’s chlorofluorocarbon recycling programs. The connection is logical once you think about it: The hot weather inspires people to upgrade their air conditioners, and they don’t want to just leave the old, Freon-filled units out on the street.

The 311 system has proved useful not just at detecting reliable patterns but also at providing insights when the normal patterns are disrupted. Clusters of calls about food-borne illness or sanitary problems from the same restaurant now trigger a rapid response from the city’s health department. And during emergencies, callers help provide real-time insight into what’s really happening. “When [New York Yankees pitcher] Cory Lidle crashed his plane into a building on the Upper East Side, we had a bulletin on all of our screens in less than an hour explaining that it was not an act of terrorism,” Morrisroe says. After US Airways flight 1549 crash-landed in the Hudson in 2009, a few callers dialed 311 asking what they should do with hand luggage they’d retrieved from the river. “We have lots of protocols and systems in place for emergencies like plane crashes,” Morrisroe explains, “but we’d never thought about floating luggage.” This is the beauty of 311. It thrives on the quotidian and predictable—the school-closing queries and pothole complaints—but it also plays well with black swans.

But there’s more to 311 than just better government. There’s tons of data flowing all around us, about traffic, safety, education, health, generated by public sources and by our own smartphones. Dozens of start-up business are mining this data to help us navigate the complexities of urban life: avoid traffic, find good places to eat, and work together to clean up our neighborhoods. Data+connectivity=information, and information is the currency of modern life. How do you think the data revolution will help us make our cities better?

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