04/08/2014 09:14 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Data-Driven Journalism And Open Government

The collection and strategic use of data is important to every industry and sector, but when it comes to government is all of this data a double-edged sword? Data crunching enables government agencies to provide better services to citizens, but providing open access challenges them to cross cultural comfort zones. I recently had the privilege to discuss data driven journalism, open data and government related topics with Alex Howard (Twitter: @digiphile) who is a writer and editor and a Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism University. Howard is also a columnist at TechRepublic, founder of "E Pluribus Unum," a blog focused on open government and technology. Howard has been recognized by The Washingtonian Magazine as one of Washington's "TechTitans" and a "respected trend-spotter and chronicler of government's use of new media". Howard is also incredibly active and insightful on Twitter, recently recognized as one of the top 100 people to follow on Twitter in 2014.

Alex Howard

As a journalist and advocate for open government, Howard shares his deep knowledge and perspective on open data and government. Below is the high-level overview of our conversation with Howard - please watch the video for a more detailed summary.

What is data-driven journalism?
Data-driven journalism differs from traditional journalism in that it treats data as a source (instead of a person) and uses this digitized data to look for patterns in it. It can be as simple as creating tables, graphs, online spreadsheets and info graphics to including more complex things such as the application of data science to the practice of journalism and the creation of news apps that allow people to explore this collected data. Most importantly it is a different attitude towards the data. It is seeing the data as something to be used, included and shared as a strategic asset and not to be discarded. It is thinking about data as an asset and technology as a core component of journalism to allow journalists to put these things together to inform readers and present news in a different kind of way for a different kind of generation.

How is data-driven policy being used? There is a phenomenon in government institutions where they are crunching data over time and are able to use it to help protect citizens. But as government agencies use data to augment what public officials do - such as the NYPD who is using data to predict where to put officers, allowing them to focus on areas with higher crimes and also to profile people in the community who may be more likely to commit crime - they need to decide which of this data should be open for the public to see and which should be audited internally. Crime data tends to be one of the most-requested datasets across the United States, with inbound demand from media, residents and social justice advocates. Open government advocates believe that the public has a right to know how they are being governed, from what is being done in their names and communities to how the data that represent those communities is being gathered, stored, published and used. As predictive policing grows, government officials must be more open about crime data and algorithms.

In the near future, the predictive algorithms that indicate to law enforcement which areas or individuals to target may well be the subject of Freedom of Information requests from journalists as well. Journalists need to have the analytical skills to understand all of this so they can make best use of it in their reports. The last several years have seen growth in improving the digital literacy of journalists and the public to think in an algorithmic way.

What is the relationship between data-driven journalism and open government? With the way the world has changed because of explosive adoption of mobile and social technologies, the dynamics of how the news is shared has changed. The role of journalists has shifted, because now anyone can share what they are seeing. Journalists are no longer the only ones who can report, comment and add content and expertise to news-worthy events. Because of this, journalists are now working with the people who were formerly their "audience" to fact check and verify information - sharing collectively online to create something more cohesive about why things are happening. The fact that people can share what they are experiencing or seeing around the world creates a society that has become quite "leaky" and presents a real security concern for the government as they navigate the difficult waters of what types of data should be open.

Why is open access in government so hard? With all of these data possibilities the fact remains that the current state of the online world and the associated technologies, platforms and companies that underpin it have raced far ahead of the legal and regulatory confines that lawmakers have created. To note that technology outpaces legislation isn't a novel insight, but the gap between the two may be the greatest today. In addition to this gap is the fact that open access and disclosure may not be a part of the culture or tradition at a given state, local or federal government agency. Add to this the reality that some places are still very paper-based and government agencies can be years behind the private sector in terms of digitization, makes it harder to share data.

Despite these challenges there are a lot of government leaders working in these institutions that are trying to make a difference and in many cases are, such as Marc Touitou, CIO of the City of San Francisco, and Kristin D. Russell, CIO of the State of Colorado. Although it is very difficult to work within these large institutions and established bureaucracies that have existed for decades and centuries, it is possible to get backing by political leaders when something negative enough happens which ends up resulting in empowering people to do digital differently. A great example of this can be found in the case of the Government Digital Services.

What is the future of social media? In reference to Howard's slide-share about the future of social media, he says that all of these trends are happening (better filters, better browsers, the Internet of things, wearable devices, etc.) and as they continue to happen, it creates thorny decisions for people. Mobile and wearable devices, such as the iWatch, give huge amounts of insight about ourselves. As we are given incentives to share that data, we have to question what happens with that data. Mobile companies already have data about our movements and the patterns of people's lives. The next level of wearable's, such as Google Glass, will be tracking that as well. Even the LED street lights outside the library in Washington, D.C have cameras, creating a shift in our public space. All this "right-time" data will cause some interesting social dynamics and from a corporate or government perspective, this data-overload may cause the lines between correlation and causation derived from data analysis to blur.

You can watch the full interview with Alex Howard here. Please join me and Michael Krigsman every Friday at 3PM EST as we host CXOTalk - connecting with thought leaders and innovative executives who are pushing the boundaries within their companies and their fields.