Every month, more open government data is available online. Local governments are becoming data suppliers. Open healthcare data is spurring better decisions. There’s a tremendous amount of activity in open data – but there’s a long road ahead for open government. At the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, Jeremiah Akin and Michael Castellon made a case for “why visualizing government data makes taxpayers happy.”

The expectation of transparency is creating demand for government agencies to develop new ways to communicate complex data and trends to the public in easy-to-access and easy-to-understand formats.

Some agencies are turning to Google Maps and KML data to visualize raw information online and on mobile devices. Delivering data in more easily understandable formats not only boosts trust and confidence between government agencies and their publics, but also streamlines workloads among Data, Web, Editorial, and Customer Service teams.

The two men talked about how the Texas Comptroller is using public-facing maps to communicate with the public, including to the rapidly increasing numbers of citizens accessing government websites from mobile devices.

The utility of open government data can be quite concrete, as when live tsunami data is used to help save lives. It can also help people to understand more about the virtual lines in their towns and cities. In Texas, ClaimItTexas.org shows unclaimed property in Lone Star State.

Mobile transparency

The Texas Transparency Map is also available for touchscreen mobile devices and for tablets. That’s no accident: Akin said that mobile traffic to the site up four-fold since lat year.

“We’re seeing a lot more mobile access,” he said. “If we want to make it available on multiple devices, we need to create in a way that can be displayed.” That insight is a crucial one, and reverberates far beyond the government sphere. By choosing to develop non-native Web applications written in HTML5, Javascript and JSON, this cohort of Texas government avoided “Shiny App Syndrome.” Next steps include support for street level detail, Google Fusion tables, and geolocation.

Putting open government data to work

“Open government data has been used for a long time,” said Akin, citing the use of census data in newspapers. A new class of new media journalism is putting data to use in innovative ways, pointed out Castellon. “The Texas Tribune is one of the leaders in data visualization,” he said, which helps citizens to make sense of government data.

The key here, emphasized Akin, is that is not just enough to simply dump data. You need ways to visualize it and make it meaningful as information. “There’s a lot of resistance – people have been there, and that’s not how they’ve done things,” he said. “If you make a visualization that makes someone’s job easier pretty soon they start coming back to you.

With better data visualizations and more information, Castellon posited that more problem solving can take place. “When you release data, especiallly with science, education or research, there are stories embedded in that data,” he said.

In this narrative, it’s up to governments to release better, clean data in consumable formats and the evolving art of data journalism to make stories from it that give citizens, businesses and elected officials insight into the complexities of modern life.