8 Ways To Open Up Civic Data So That People Actually Use It

The Knight Foundation just gave $3.2 million to organizations that are making public data more useful. These are our favorites.

8 Ways To Open Up Civic Data So That People Actually Use It
Knight Foundation

Government has been one of the slowest sectors to embrace the Internet and open data, but it’s starting to happen. Incubators like Code for America are teaching entrepreneurs to develop civic-minded apps. And city governments in places like Chicago and San Francisco are warming up to open data standards. This week, the Knight Foundation announced the eight winners of the $3.2 million Knight News Challenge on Open Gov, a competition that asked entrants to design ways to make public data more helpful.


One of the most exciting projects is Open Gov for the Rest of Us, a project that gives residents of low-income Chicago neighborhoods the tools to ask for better data about foreclosure, immigration, crime, and schools. This isn’t just an app–it’s an entire engagement campaign for low-income parts of the city.

The campaign is using existing infrastructure in five “smart communities“–low income areas of Chicago that are getting increased digital access–to hold civic data trainings. It’s also pushing residents to think about what other kinds of open data tools they would like to see. Open Gov for the Rest of Us received $350,000.

Our other favorite winner is OpenCounter, a team that makes it easier for residents to navigate the tricky world of business permitting, which too often turns off burgeoning entrepreneurs. As the brief explains: “Whether it’s a startup, boutique or restaurant, OpenCounter helps to simplify this interaction with city government. It collects and sorts data on existing regulations while providing running totals of the costs and time involved in setting up shop.”

The creators of the project are, not-so-coincidentally, Code for America fellows. They previously piloted the OpenCounter tool in Santa Cruz, California. The project scooped up $450,000 from the Knight Foundation.

Here are the rest of the winners, courtesy of a Knight Foundation press release:

Civic Insight: Providing up-to-date information on vacant properties so that communities can find ways to make tangible improvements to local spaces; Launching a public policy simulator that helps people visualize the impact that public policies like health care reform and school budget changes might have on local economies and communities;

Oyez: Making state and appellate court documents freely available and useful to journalists, scholars and the public, by providing straightforward summaries of decisions, free audio recordings and more; Making government contract bidding more transparent by simplifying the way smaller companies bid on government work;

GitMachines: Supporting government innovation by creating tools and servers that meet government regulations, so that developers can easily build and adopt new technology;

Plan in a Box: Making it easier to discover information about local planning projects, by creating a tool that governments and contractors can use to easily create websites with updates that also allow public input into the process.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.