Open Data Helps Athens Residents Improve Transportation Infrastructure
By Jeremy Gantz
Residents know what their community needs — their unique insights can help develop change that is equitable and data-driven. That idea is at the core of how the Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County (ACCGov) in Georgia funds some of its capital improvement projects.
“Residents are our eyes and ears on the streets,” Chief Data Officer Joseph D’Angelo says. “So if we’re looking for a mix of projects that will maximize benefit to the community, it makes sense to turn to people who are knowledgeable about what’s needed.”
Public outreach and engagement has long been part of how ACCGov ensures the proceeds of its Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (TSPLOST) are directed to areas of highest need. Voters first approved the 1% tax in 2018, funding 19 projects encompassing everything from bus stop upgrades to bridge replacements to highway corridor improvements. In May, residents voted on whether to continue that tax to fund an additional 34 projects over the next five years.
A special advisory committee of volunteer residents appointed by the ACCGov mayor and Commission has always been a key step for narrowing down TSPLOST-funded projects proposed by both residents and ACC staff. Recently data has played a much bigger role in helping the committee review and select the second batch of projects, a reflection of ACC’s growing commitment to open data.
“It really was a different situation in this go-round, because we rolled out a lot of tools that weren’t previously available on the public-facing side,” says Open Data Technician Paige Seago of ACCGov’s Geospatial Information Office. Since she was hired in early 2021, the government has ramped up the scope and influence of its open data sets and practices.
‘As Granular as We Could Get’
During the recent TSPLOST advisory committee’s work, data came to life in a variety of ways. Equity was a major consideration: The Commission asked the committee of residents to spread projects across different neighborhoods in the ACCGov footprint while paying particular attention to high-poverty areas. So ACCGov capital projects office, supported by GIS, provided the committee with a map detailing poverty levels by the most recent U.S. Census tract data and plotted project locations on it.
Residents and ACCGov staff leveraged additional data sets to inform project proposals submitted to the committee for consideration. Transportation infrastructure data sets made available in 2021 detailed the exact locations of signalized intersections, streetlights, sidewalks and crosswalks, among other things. “Residents could see how sidewalk gaps in their neighborhood compared to other areas around the county,” Seago says, helping them make data-based arguments for the merits of proposals.
All these newly available data resources likely contributed to a big uptick in project proposals submitted to the committee last year, she says. There were 91 projects initially in the mix, compared to 36 back in 2017 when the first TSPLOST committee convened. “Residents were empowered to really see what current infrastructure looks like on the ground. Data accessibility has clearly been valuable for generating interest,” Seago says.
Resident engagement and data-informed decisions supporting TSPLOST-funded projects continues well after the Commission’s final selections, during the design and engineering phase.
For example, the 2018 TSPLOST round included three busy corridor improvement projects involving Lexington Highway, Atlanta Highway, and Prince Avenue. But where exactly should crosswalks and bike lanes be located? Where should traffic lanes be eliminated to make room for bike lanes? Public engagement helps answer those questions and justify specific design decisions.
A Seat at the Table
As ACCGov’s data infrastructure and resources have grown, so have their influence. Leaders have begun integrating data experts into planning and operations. “Now we have a seat at the table,” says D’Angelo, who has worked for the city-county since 2017. When the capital projects office decided to launch the latest TSPLOST project selection process last year, Joseph D’Angelo was invited to be part of it from kickoff.
“We wouldn’t necessarily have been invited into that conversation unless we had the ability to play a meaningful role in the public-facing proposal and selection process,” D’Angelo says.
And data-driven governance practices extend beyond the realm of capital projects. “Organizationally, we are moving beyond the anecdotal,” he says. “We are starting to measure what it is that the community wants and support the priorities of elected officials with data. The open data portal is the perfect place around which to coalesce those conversations.”
ACC Manager Blaine Williams points to technical assistance provided by What Works Cities as instrumental in moving the government beyond prior “piecemeal and aspirational” data-related efforts. “We are on the threshold of really changing this organization,” Williams says. “Between the technical systems, the structure, the rigor and accountability, What Works Cities really brought value.”
“As Athens Clarke County Unified Government’s data capacity and culture continues to take root, the fruit of these investments will become more and more visible,” Manager Williams says. “In an era of increasing political polarization, when many conversations between residents and elected officials can come from an emotional place, basing decisions on reliable, trustworthy data lays a foundation for trust.”
“We are fighting to restore trust between the public and local government,” says Williams. “Data can be the perfect medium for that: It’s a basis for sound and rational decision-making. In these times, that’s crucial.”
Jeremy Gantz has more than 15 years of experience as a newspaper and magazine writer and editor.
As a member of the nationwide What Works Cities (WWC) network, the Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County (ACCGov) has received technical assistance from one of WWC’s expert partners to strengthen data-driven governance capacities.
Athens Clarke County Unified Government is one of 55 cities to achieve What Works Cities Certification, the national standard of excellence for well-managed, data-driven local government. Read stories from other certified cities here.