When Chris McCoy started Data4America, he had one mission, to bring the power and potential of big data to making American politics and its policy making processes more transparent and easier to understand.

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Nowadays, with the accelerating pace of modern life and its demands on people’s time, it can seem that citizens are less and less likely to read long-form news and magazine articles, let alone feel the need to understand complex think tank essays and policy papers, in order to stay in the loop about important political issues.

Nowadays the average Internet user has an attention span of 8.25 seconds, which creates a mismatch between the goals of circulating political and policy information through mainstream channels and how people are consuming this information.

The idea with Data4America, is to empower and incentivize data scientists, data journalists, and ordinary citizens with policy data ambitions to take their much-needed intelligence and talents, and apply them to coming up with non-partisan data solutions to challenges in American politics and policy making.

Data4America’s primary way of doing this is through broadcasting public calls, through its web hub and social media, for authors to submit data set and story submissions that are important for US political and policy issues on a local, state, or national level.

The submission process is pretty straightforward, and includes the possibility of submitting data sets for open source licensing. Besides general submissions, Data4America “policy channels” targeting particular issue areas chosen by donors will also be promoted.

The editorial board will examine all data sets, analysis, and stories submitted to ensure that they meet Data4America’s standards of validity, non-partisanship, and impactfulness. After the Data4America editorial board votes to approve a submission, it will published and publicly promoted. Authors whose submissions are approved and published in this way will receive a payment for each of them.

 

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Data4America also works on innovative data tools and services such as LifeMap.io, which is an infographic platform that visualizes facts about a politician’s life on a timeline. This way, voters are able to get a better understanding for who the politician is, where they come from, and how their views have been influenced by their past.

They’ve already released their first one on the 2016 Republican Presidential candidacy contender Ben Carson, and more are coming soon.

 

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At the moment, Data4America’s biggest technical challenge  is dealing with the great variety of data formats, protocols, and architectures that different policy data sources use.

Since there is no standardized process, different sources will publish data sets in all kinds of formats, from .xml to .pdf (though hardly anyone publishes in JSON). As a result, one of the tasks for organizations such as Data4America is to clean up these data sets, and make them more organized and standardized so that users can more easily work across data sets from different sources to develop new policy analysis and stories.

In the future, Data4America hopes to expand to other countries beyond the United States. The idea in each country will always be to bring together and empower civic-minded ordinary citizens and data specialists to help them elevate the role of data science in politics and government, so that the public can better understand how policies impact individuals’ lives. Such data-driven initiatives are crucial to the future of advocacy, the future of civic engagement, and the future of voting.

 

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Naturally, there are a lot of challenges to be overcome before Data4America achieves its ultimate ambitions, such as the standardization and open-sourcing of government data, but Chris McCoy and the team at Data4America are determined to play a key part in helping the democratization of data come to fruition.

We at BDU are excited to see such innovative applications of data science, as they will have a direct impact on how governments can better govern how we all live our lives.

 

Using our online courses at BDU, you too can leverage the power of big data to solve real-world problems relevant to you – just like Chris McCoy and the team at Data4America dealing with politics