The Scouts’ Motto — on Data

After January’s airplane miracle on the Hudson, divers charged with retrieving the craft demonstrated a good reason for public agencies to maintain comprehensive, current public data — even if their immediate utility is not apparent:

The divers who located the engine at the bottom of the Hudson River could see only a few inches in front of their masks, but they were not, in a manner of speaking, on unfamiliar ground.
The floor of the Hudson, from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to Troy, N.Y., has been mapped in recent years by scientists who used sonar to scan every square foot of river deeper than six feet.

Mapping commonly shared assets of the natural and built environment positions communities to respond to the unexpected. Government agencies should maintain detailed geospatial data, even when their justification seems rather far fetched — you never know when a jet airliner will land in the Hudson River between Midtown and Jersey.

But how to generate and maintain those data„ This situation also offers a lesson for government funding practices:

That stretch of the Hudson was mapped in 2002 and 2003 by scientists working for the State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Hudson River Estuary Program. The sonar maps they compiled were an unexpected byproduct of a state-financed project to gather data for habitat and pollution-abatement studies

Many public data are collected as part of discrete, one-time projects, like the Hudson River Estuary Program. After the projects are completed, the data can be useful in other, unrelated projects or situations. Some organizations even take on data-intensive projects with the secondary goal of generating public data for later use.

The generation of useful public data, however, should not be an afterthought or a peripheral concern — it should be a central consideration in government agencies’ evaluation of funding proposals. The episode on the Hudson shows the importance of maintaining comprehensive public data. Using projects that advance the public interest as data-collecting mechanisms can accomplish just that.

Social enterprises reference a double bottom-line: financial profitability and social justice. Government grantmaking, in the technology age, is wise to also seek a double bottom line — accomplishing discrete goals in support of the public interest now, and generating and maintaining useful public data to serve the public interest in the future.