Jackson Unveils 'Data Portal' to Increase Transparency | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Jackson Unveils 'Data Portal' to Increase Transparency

City of Jackson Chief Administrative Officer Robert Blaine helped introduce the city's new OpenGov Data Portal system on April 8.

City of Jackson Chief Administrative Officer Robert Blaine helped introduce the city's new OpenGov Data Portal system on April 8. Photo by Imani Khayyam.

— Jackson residents can now use an online data portal to see how the city is spending their money and planning to change Jackson. Chief Administrative Officer Robert Blaine and the City's consulting data scientist, Lacey Loftin, introduced the city's new OpenGov Data Portal system at a press conference on Monday.

The main goal of this new program is to provide a more "robust" data system than the one that was previously in place, Blaine said. It will also provide clarity on historical data, allowing officials and citizens to see social trends more clearly. The OpenGov Data Portal currently offers a variety of crucial information ranging from population and poverty data to city-planning strategies.

Loftin and her team developed the OpenGov portal by compiling statistics from federal agencies, including the U.S. Census Bureau and the City of Jackson's digital systems.

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Jackson City Data OpenGov

Jackson City Data OpenGov

"We envision for this tool to be used for transparency, policy and advocacy to help guide NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and governmental agencies with the information they are seeking," Loftin said. "As we continue to make OpenGov useful, city officials will release data as we discover and visualize it."

At its launch, the portal includes charts and graphs on data such as traffic deaths, migration, and changes in birth and death rates by race. The latter chart, for example, shows that white Jacksonians saw the largest increase in death rates, due in part to an aging population since 2010.

At the April 8 press conference, Loftin said that, unlike the city's 2016 attempt at cataloguing data, OpenGov will eventually house city data from all departments on a single platform and there will be little delay in the availability of that data online. Additionally, she said because there is considerably less human involvement in this system, errors are less likely to occur.

For a system constructed for accuracy and transparency, though, the "Jackson Open Data Legal Policy" on the portal specifically states the data is provided as "a public service" on an "as-is" basis and that there is no guarantee of openness or accuracy.

"Although the City will strive to ensure that such public data are accurate, the City shall make no warranty, representation, or guaranty of any type as to the content, accuracy, timeliness, completeness, or fitness" of any data on the portal, the policy reads.

Additionally, the policy hold provisions for the city to "discontinue availability" of the portal "at any time, for any reason."

OpenGov will help ensure that "the city is held accountable to improving life for Jacksonians," Blaine said at Monday's announcement.

This step toward transparency comes on the heels of controversy surrounding the Jackson Police Department's handling of its own crime statistics. In February of this year, WLBT reported that JPD had been misleadingly reporting some crime statistics that made it look like the city had experienced significant drops in crime when it had not. In February, The Jackson Free Press asked JPD for comment on the mishandled statistics, but received no answer.

In January, the Jackson Free Press obtained a trove of documents about 15 JPD officers involved in nine separate shootings. The documents revealed, for the first time, that eight of those officers went before a Hinds County grand jury last year, and the court chose not to indict them. That information became available only after repeated requests from the Jackson Free Press.

It is not clear if the new system is designed to cover data such as officer-involved shootings. On Tuesday morning, the Jackson Free Press asked JPD about OpenGov's impact on their department, but received no response by press time.

Even though the city introduced the portal this week, it has been available online for three months. Blaine said the city chose to unveil the system now to coincide with the mayor's trip to Iceland to take part in the Social Progress Imperative, a U.S.-based non-profit organization that uses social and environmental data to assess how different countries stack up when it comes to things like wellbeing, opportunity, and basic needs.

"The launch of this site and our press conference today coincide with the work that the mayor has been doing internationally to look at what social progress and economic models of human dignity look like and how we can measure that," Blaine said.

The Social Progress Imperative's most ambitious project is its Social Progress Index, a measurement index much like gross domestic product. Instead of measuring economic output, though, this data index looks at factors such as nutrition, environmental quality, personal rights (such as the right to free speech) and access to higher education to determine the overall progress of a country.

In 2014, Michael Green, the founder of the Social Progress Imperative, told a TED Talk crowd in Rio de Janeiro that, while GDP has been a useful tool, he believes it is deeply flawed

"It ignores the environment," he said. "It counts bombs and prisons as progress. It can't count happiness or community, and it has nothing to say about fairness or justice. Is it any surprise that our world, marching to the drumbeat of GDP, is teetering on the brink of environmental disaster, and is filled with anger and conflict?"

Email city intern reporter Taylor Langele at taylor@jacksonfreepress.com and follow him on Twitter at @taylor_langele.

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