Socrata: Democratizing Data For Better Governance

Socrata: Democratizing Data For Better Governance

Kevin Merritt, Founder & CEO, SocrataKevin Merritt, Founder & CEO It wasn’t long ago when citizens wrote letters and called their public servants when a problem needed to be solved. Now more than ever, CIOs play a critical role in upholding the most universal mission of any government—keeping their people safe and making their communities a great place to live, work, and play. Citizens interact with their governments almost exclusively through technology and often their expectations are not being met.

We’re all accustomed to the data-driven services of ubiquitous apps like Uber, Starbucks, Yelp, and Zillow. We rely on feedback loops: getting an electronic receipt and rating our service in real time, knowing how many more dollars we need to spend before we earn our next reward, and seeing how home values on our street change. “Governments have a great opportunity to deliver immediate, clear self-service to not only citizens, but to public servants as well,” remarks Kevin Merritt, Founder and CEO, Socrata.

To boost operational excellence and propel economic development, Socrata provides a SaaS cloud-based enterprise solution for unprecedented data-driven innovation and cost savings for the public sector.

“Today, dozens of federal agencies, more than half the states, hundreds of cities and counties, and some world-changing institutions like the World Bank and United Nations all rely on Socrata to tap into the value of the data they already capture, process, and create,” remarks Merritt.

Data Innovation

Socrata was founded in 2007 with the goal of creating a cloud platform to enable organizations to easily manage and share their data. A weekend project by one of the company’s engineers resulted in a feature that embedded data in a webpage. Unlike other technology companies, Socrata serves only government organizations. One of their first partners was the White House; and at the state level, Massachusetts and Oregon have embraced the power of data.

“We partnered with the state of Massachusetts comptroller’s office, which oversees about $60 billion in public money, to help them solve the problem of not being able to show where taxpayer dollars were being spent,” says Merritt.

Massachusetts evaluated spending years and millions of dollars to procure and create a solution that could show state spending since 2010. Instead, they partnered with Socrata to go lean. In about seven months, and at a much lower cost, Massachusetts launched CTHRU Spending. The site gives users the ability to find the budget information they want, while reducing the staff burden of responding to public records requests.

Unlike most private sector companies that repurpose their solutions for government use, Socrata solutions are built from ground up to exclusively fit government needs

Unlike a static PDF, the site is regularly updated with spending and payroll data. It works on mobile devices, and is overall more user-friendly.

In the state of Oregon, a Department of Fish and Wildlife worker saw an opportunity with data. She had to wait four months for her GIS department to update a map of boat ramps on her department’s website. The Fish and Wildlife employee lacked the technical expertise to make the necessary GIS updates; but with Socrata, she could maintain, create, and publish the map in minutes.

She was delighted with the shortened wait time, but it didn‘t stop there. The Fish and Wildlife worker encouraged citizens to upload photos of the boat ramps to the state’s map. Now, anyone can click on the marker of a boat ramp and not only learn about its hours of operation, lanes, and other details, but could also see photos of the ramp. Oregon boaters loved it. And this public servant’s job satisfaction went through the roof.

Government First

A large part of Socrata’s core mission is to empower public servants of all technical abilities to unlock the value of data and use it in consumable ways. Most government CIOs spend millions on complex enterprise systems that not only take years and armies of consultants to implement, but also create maintenance nightmares. Socrata, on the other hand, develops modern and flexible Data-as-a-Service solutions, giving CIOs access to a continuous stream of innovation at significant cost and speed advantages.

“Governments benefit from the agile development practices and immediate product updates that come with a cloud-based solution, negating system downtime and unnecessary resource drain,” says Merritt. The company’s solutions are purpose-built to meet strict government standards and optimized on Amazon Web Services.

Unlike most private sector companies that repurpose their solutions for government use, Socrata is built from the ground up to exclusively serve government needs. The company follows a proven process called “Design Partnership” where city, county, state, or federal leaders actively participate in the design and development of new products. “Many of our partners have told us that we’re the Research and Development arm of their city or federal agency, and we take a great deal of pride in that,” says Merritt.

And, Socrata believes that one of the best ways for governments to improve their services to citizens is to talk to their peers—in similar cities, counties, states, agencies, or programs—who have found innovative ways to overcome similar challenges.

“It’s our responsibility to share the most effective policies, projects, and programs, so other governments can learn and build on the successes of one another,” says Merritt. In March 2017, Socrata Connect will enable governments from across the country to share the ways they’re using data to solve government challenges and better serve their citizens.

Building Public Trust

At one time the State of Michigan lacked the ability to show the public how government money was being spent.

"A large part of Socrata’s core mission is to empower public servants of all technical abilities to unlock the value of data and use it in consumable ways"

The state was in search of a solution that would not only enable citizens to track spending, but also improve the state’s annual grade released by U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). As a partner, Socrata provided Michigan with the necessary technology to re-launch its site and display the state’s spending in a clear, user-friendly manner.

While initially the government was spending 250 hours internally maintaining their website to provide information, with Socrata’s support, Michigan was able to spend less time on updates and provide a better website experience. Now, the residents of Michigan can not only get in-depth information on the budget, but also easily download datasets. Socrata’s team brought with them the lessons learned from other governments, a proven methodology, and the technical horsepower that helped Michigan achieve an A+ grade from PIRG that year.

A Purpose-driven Workforce

“Socrata has more former Peace Corps volunteers, Eagle Scouts, and purpose-driven employees than any other company I’ve encountered. There’s just no substitute for domain expertise and we have many former and future public servants working at Socrata,” points out Merritt. “We take a very purposeful approach to investing in innovation and everything we do is anchored in how we create value for the government,” adds Merritt.

In the future, as the volume and diversity of government data increases, Socrata plans to invest more in machine learning for indexing, organizing, and connecting data with the public. The company is working to help governments unlock the five trillion dollars of economic value that is locked in government data. To leverage and harness untapped data, Socrata is continuing to build relationships with government CIOs, elected officials, and senior civil servants to find more effective ways to democratize data, information, and insights within government and out to the public.

“Empowering the government employee to become the most data-savvy knowledge worker in the world, so they can use data to design and deliver successful programs to citizens, is the defining challenge that Socrata is working on,” says Merritt.

- Ava Garcia
    December 12, 2016