Planning for the region’s future depends on the availability of good data. We need to know which neighborhoods are the most attractive, how technology is changing travel patterns, and what new industries are emerging and which are at risk. To take action, policymakers need information on the loss of open spaces, which communities struggle more with health issues, and how climate change impacts infrastructure.
Federal data resources such as the U.S. Census, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the United States Geological Survey, in collaboration with state governments, have for decades been the established sources of data. But recent advances in technology have made it possible to collect, analyze, and disseminate a vast amount of data that could help us better understand the world. Most government entities, however, have been slow to adopt these new technologies and adjust policy needs. In fact, basic data collection at these agencies is even at risk of cutbacks for both budgetary and political reasons. Public-sector agencies don’t collect data consistently or share it with the public, and government has been reluctant to require aggregated (anonymized) data collected by the private sector to be shared or disseminated more broadly.
In 2012, New York City enacted an open data law to accelerate data use by the city and residents, making it a national leader in data policy. New York City’s Open Data portal, established as a result, contains data as varied as a detailed inventory of all the trees in the city, temporary street closures, and filming locations. The Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics, founded at the same time, aggregates and analyzes data from across City agencies to help make public services more efficient.
Many municipalities and public sector agencies, however, don’t have the funding or technical expertise to provide these services. New data tools also raise concerns about hacking and cybersecurity as well as as privacy, including data captured on street cameras. Data concerning race and ethnicity could theoretically be used in discriminatory ways. And any data-driven application that is connected to the internet might be hacked.
Establish the Regional Census to help the public sector better serve constituents
Since its inception in 1840, the U.S. Census Bureau has facilitated tremendous public and private innovation. Counting people in a given tract of land on a regular basis helps federal and state government allocate scarce resources. The census gives valuable information to companies seeking to expand their market base, and researchers studying socioeconomic trends. The process of counting and calculating census data has also triggered innovation in and of itself: IBM’s first contract, for example, was to build a tabulator for the Census Bureau.
Fifty years into the digital age, we need a new regional institution to further advance that development of data that is of particular relevance to the metropolitan economy and civic functions, just as the U.S. Census did on a national level. A regional census would not compete with the nationwide census, but rather would augment it; and the standards, methods, and governance it develops could be deployed in other states and nationwide.
For the most part, the regional census would serve as the strategic planner, capacity builder, and synthesizer of data to complement public-sector agencies across the region. While data might still be collected by multiple private and public-sector entities, the Regional Census would coordinate and standardize data collection and dissemination.
In some cases, the Regional Census would collect data that is not the responsibility of any single agency, and also provide the technical expertise agencies need to implement policies, evaluate technologies, and set security and privacy policies. As a result, municipalities would be better equipped to improve resiliency, utilize real-time data on vehicle movement from sources such as bus and truck fleets, and evaluate on-demand transportation services and dynamic tolling technologies.
Designate a nonprofit organization as a home for the Regional Census
A Regional Census would be a nonprofit organization funded by both the public sector and philanthropy, like the New York Public Library. It could be based at an academic institution to provide independence and allow more direct connections to researchers. The board of the Regional Census would be composed of public-sector representatives and members of the community, academia, and the private sector.
One model for the Regional Census is the Array of Things in Chicago, an innovative partnership between the University of Chicago, the Argonne National Laboratory and the city government. The Array of Things measures data on such things as air quality, climate, and traffic to better understand and improve cities.
The Regional Census should provide data resources and technical support to public entities who seek it out. The census should also develop best practices on protecting privacy and civil rights, and ensuring cybersecurity, with a standing opt-in policy on anonymizing personal data. Expanding the use of open-source software should be a priority, as it allows for greater community collaboration on security and does not bind the agency to one vendor for servicing, thereby potentially reducing costs.
Expand the scope of data-driven decision making for the public good
The Regional Census would prioritize the collection of local data, and a multi-stakeholder process would define more specifically what data is needed. This could include data about land use, zoning, and finance data, standardized across municipalities. It could also include building-level data about energy and water use, or indoor air pollution; real estate sales, evictions, and foreclosures; as well as traffic, transit, and street conditions.
Some of this data is currently collected by private entities such as ridesharing companies, but as it has public significance, should be released—at least in an aggregate fashion—to benefit the public good.
A critical element of the regional census mission would be to enable collaboration among different levels of government, by creating and releasing data targeted to specific policy goals rather than simply identifying problems.
The data developed by the Regional Census could also be utilized to formulate regulations in areas such as transportation and health using real-time data at the appropriate geographic scale.
Enhance regional capacity to develop data and new business models
To facilitate the collection and dissemination of data, the Regional Census would create and release a set of developer tools via Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). APIs are standard protocols for building software to facilitate communication between various software components. Data related to the Regional Census would include guidelines about privacy and security issues as defined by the organization’s board of trustees.
For some datasets, there could be an opportunity to release the data as a product, creating a data marketplace in which private companies could pay to access API with guaranteed service levels, thereby helping fund the Regional Census and spurring further innovations in data collection.
The Regional Census would provide more technical capacity for municipalities and agencies to collect and utilize data for policy-making and improving services. Data could be used to increase transparency and government engagement with constituents; facilitate planning and decision-making; and also be able to respond to privacy and cyber security concerns. Community groups would be able to engage in citizen science projects and advocate for data needs and concerns. This would enable better collaboration between municipalities, while businesses would more easily be able to find new opportunities.
Paying for it
The cost of the census would depend on the breadth of its mandate. It could start relatively small with state funding and focus on a few key data sources and issues. The agencies, county governments, and municipalities that use the organization’s services could provide further financing as it takes on additional responsibilities. The census could also generate revenue from contracting its services.