City to make public data more accessible

Sarah White

The city of Austin is looking for information about which type of public data residents consider most important, but UT officials said they do not have the resources to conduct similar research on prioritizing University data.

Matthew Esquibel, web supervisor for the city of Austin Communications and Technology Management Department, said a poll was taken to help the city decide how to format data on the city website, which is being redesigned. He said the poll, which was distributed online, gave residents 25 votes to indicate which sets of data they considered most important.

“We thought that just releasing data without knowing what people actually want would be a mistake,” Esquibel said. “In general, the things that we get public requests for frequently — like health and city clerk documents — were very popular.”

He said voters were also given the opportunity to suggest datasets that were not listed.

“Overall, there were no great surprises [in the datasets that were suggested],” Esquibel said. “A lot of the things that were mentioned we already offer, but not in the format that these people wanted.”

Esquibel said the poll results did not offer a lot of new information, but it did help to reinforce what his team already knew.

“It was really just one channel of information that leads to the decision about how to format the new website,” he said. “It’s a way to engage the community in the decision-making process.”

Kristi Fisher, spokeswoman for the Office of Information Management and Analysis at the University said UT has not been able to conduct this type of research into the information needs of the UT community.

“We don’t make a conscious effort to investigate what information the public wants,” Fisher said.

“Honestly, we are so bombarded by specific requests that we spend most of our time fulfilling these needs.”

She said her office does its best to respond to all requests as long as they do not violate any privacy regulations, but office personnel lack the resources to conduct any type of investigation.

“The best we can do is look for common themes,” Fisher said. “We receive a lot of questions about things like diversity and degree production. A lot of the requests we get every year have to do with the SAT scores and the class rankings of students in the incoming class of that year.”

Annette Buckley, research assistant and co-chair of the Student Association of the School of Information, said the issue might be a lack of resources.

She said it is easy to produce data, but curating information requires a significant time investment, and UT might need to consider devoting more resources to managing and prioritizing the information it releases.

“What UT has to recognize is that as an institution with a lot of information resources, people expect to receive data in a timely manner,” Buckley said.

Printed on Wednesday, November 30, 2011 as: UT lacks resources to curate, prioritize public information