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What is "place" and why does it matter?

by: Michael Byrne, Geographic Information Officer

May 20, 2011

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Today, I spoke at a forum on Place-Based Public Management sponsored by the National Academy of Public Administration. The purpose of the forum was to explore how place-based policies might improve public management.

This idea hasn’t been very well understood across the federal space (and others), so it’s worth tackling a simple question: What is place-based public management?

At its most basic, place-based public management is the recognition that policy outcomes vary over location. This concept is not hard to demonstrate.  A single look at the National Broadband Map gives simple examples:

Simply recognizing the potential of place-based awareness, however, does little for consumers. In their role as public administrators, it’s on government -- federal, state, local, municipal -- to move the ball forward. So I pose these questions and offer some of my own answers, in the hope that others will chime in and build out a fuller picture.

How is the vision being translated into practical accomplishments across the federal government?

Place-based accomplishments happen when users get accurate, rich information about where they are. The interface for these user experiences should be developed entirely in the web space, easy for consumers to use, easy for developers to develop on top of. Maybe most importantly, these interfaces must be developed from the start with geography in mind. This is crucial, as allows policy makers to understand where problems are, and design strategies for implementing positive change that’s relevant to those locations.

The single most important thing we developed when building the National Broadband Map was a spatial relationship based on the census block. Now users can query their own neighborhoods; policy makers and consumers alike have access to very high resolution information about broadband availability that was never available before. Importantly, our team avoided the common trap of making information available at too-broad of a level, like national or even county, when what we need is what is happening right here at a certain block.

What are the key challenges to integrating geospatial data and technology into agency operations?

We need to make sure that the geographic context is highlighted. Sure, maps are important as a familiar tool for visual assessment, but unless place-based administrators also quantify the variation and list them in ranks (so users know where their state, county and congressional district rank against other states, counties and congressional districts), we again fail.

The National Broadband Map is the first outlet for consumers to see ordered lists of places with and without broadband service by any number of metrics. Our developers quantified this dynamic list; we have provided over 34 trillion combinations of querying data. Once I know the context of place, I can begin to argue for the equity in policy decisions which affect place. Without that knowledge of spatial context, I as a public administrator, I have a higher chance of implementing the wrong policy.

It isn’t enough for our data assets to be developed on geographic principles or presented in geographic context, we need to open them up via open standards. We did just that in developing the National Broadband Map. On http://broadbandmap.gov/developer, we publish open standard queries for 100% of the data and application in the Map. Since we’ve launched we have seen several applications built on our platform, including the US Department of Education. Now the US Dept. of Education can begin to establish new policies that positively affect learning via a better understanding of broadband availability gleaned through our platform. Essentially the platform approach, using open standards for web development, creates new economies of scale, and begins to make new connections in place based approaches for other organizations.

What are the major barriers to further progress?

Barriers to progress exist. Developing applications in the public space which do not think about spatial data from the beginning are destined to fail. Our data systems need to build in high resolution spatial reference from the beginning. Simply collecting and presenting information about any topic at a county level or higher is just not enough. Every consumer needs to know what is going on right where they are now.

Other questions remain. Engaging federal government leaders more broadly on these issues is crucial to the long term success and advancement of place-based public administration. The federal government, in return, must better engage state and local governments, as well as industry partners. These entities are responsible for aggregating up loads of crucial data as part of large, place-based products. Having standardized, widely-agreed upon approaches to these challenges makes them easier to solve moving forward.

On these last two questions -- and on this post at large -- we look forward to hearing your feedback and continuing the conversation.

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