About Data Standards

What is a data standard - and why is it important?

In the context of economic mobility, standardized data can help public sector employees make service-related decisions more quickly; collaborate with other cities or counties; and benchmark their own progress.

Data standards may address language or terminology so that they may be used consistently. For example, the FBI has a program called uniform crime reporting, or UCR, which has specific definitions for terms such as “Arson” or “Robbery”, so national statistics can be compiled even when state and local laws define the terms differently. Because it’s impractical for the FBI to understand the different terminology in thousands of jurisdictions, law enforcement agencies are required to “translate” their own semantics into the UCR standard.

Data standards may also define the structure of the data to be published.They include the names and descriptions of the columns of data. They often specify data types, such as “text”, “number”, or “date”. Schematic standards may also include how one dataset is related to another. This is common when data needs to be organized logically. For example, in BLDS, there is a dataset for permits and another for inspections. The BLDS specification allows inspection records to be associated with their corresponding permits.

At their core, data standards help people discover, interact with, and add value to the information they have access to.

To fully understand their power, consider the example of the most popular civic data standard: GTFS. Short for “General Transit Feed Specification”, GTFS helps public transportation systems share their routes, schedule, and fare data so that anyone planning a trip from one place to another knows when they can catch a train or a bus to their destination – and how much it will cost. While there are plenty of apps which work as trip planners, one of the more well-known ones is Google Maps. In fact, GTFS was co-developed by Google and Portland TriMet in 2006. TriMet published the data, and Google consumed it and made it available to anyone planning a trip in that area. Since 2006, GTFS has evolved to meet new needs and it has been adopted around the globe.

Nearly everyone uses public transit at some point in their lives. Imagine how challenging it would be to use apps or websites if every public transit system published their data in different ways. Thanks to GTFS, you don’t have to.

Why now?

No matter who you are or where you come from, by working hard, you can achieve the American Dream. Financial opportunity and the prospect of upward mobility are deeply imbedded in the American story. While this ideal has inspired many Americans to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” and countless others to immigrate to the US seeking opportunity, recent studies of economic mobility and reports of wage stagnation cast doubt on just how achievable the Dream is.

Because of the fragmented nature of data sharing, disparate data systems, competing priorities of governments, and specific needs of individuals and families with barriers to economic mobility, it is not easy to determine whether government investments are achieving the desired long-term outcomes for residents, or to track the long-term impacts of programs and policies.

What’s next?

Check back here toward the end of 2020 to see how the data standards work has evolved.

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