To Prevent Another Flint, Make All Open Data Machine Readable


Image Credits: Perry Rech/American Red Cross / AP

Alex Salkever


Alex Salkever is the CMO at

The lead poisoning of the entire city of Flint, Michigan was preventable and should never have happened.

Numerous pundits and industry experts have said this. Most of them, however, explain that if government had functioned properly, the environmental agencies would have properly communicated to their higher-ups and the problem would have been spotted much sooner.

Those with a more cynical view intone that the government in Ann Arbor was not terribly interested in the plight of the largely poor residents of long-beleaguered Flint, a casualty of the Rust Belt Collapse.

I think these experts have it wrong. Open data can help us, the people of the United States, prevent the next Flint. More specifically, real-time, machine-readable, regularly reported open data that is transparent from collection all the way through analysis.

We cannot and should not rely on the government to always keep us safe. This is not an indictment. Governments are fallible, just as any other large organization is fallible. But 100 years ago, there was no way to easily access, analyze and monitor government activities. Today, there is no excuse not to do so.

In the case of Flint, if state and federal environmental authorities had placed in a timely fashion the raw water testing results into an open data platform like Socrata, Junar or CKAN, then any citizen could have run a quick analysis on the results and, with a modicum of education, judged for themselves whether something was amiss.

Developers, too, could have accessed this data via an API and piped it into any number of data analytics platforms to spot aberrant samples, anomalies and other red flags.

Equally important, such systems could detect changes in testing procedures that might indicate manipulation. In the case of Flint, a number of positive test results for lead were not reported. Had these additional samples been included in the reports, then the samples would have crossed critical thresholds that would have forced the government to engage in deeper investigation and possibly even shut down the supply.

A smart analytics system, pointed at the reporting data, might have noted the dramatic drop in sample sizes or spotted anomalies.

Unfortunately, today much government data is provided to the people in dirty, unreadable formats. Often, it comes to us one or two years late. Imagine if Google Analytics gave you data with a one- or two-year lag-time. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it’s not that far off.

We have shown that we can digitize and report in a very timely fashion many types of critical analog government data. Check the real-time crime maps of your city or ZIP code for a taste of this. Crime data is messy data, collected by humans. But when the reporting structure is normalized and enforced, machine readability is automatic and painless.

To be clear, much of the government data that is relevant to our lives is not even big data. There are a comparatively small number of water samples in Flint taken each year. If you put all the water samples taken for every water system in the United States for the past 50 years into a database, it would be dwarfed by the monthly clickstream analysis database of Netflix, Amazon or any other major web property. A smart blogger was able in a single afternoon to analyze all the parking ticket data of New York City and find the “most expensive” fire hydrants in the city. His tool of choice? Microsoft Excel.

We already see people taking matters into their own hands to collect and correct government data around critical matters. Brian Burghart runs Fatal Encounters, a nonprofit crowdsourced effort by a distributed team of volunteers to catalog every instance in the United States where a citizen is killed during an incident with law enforcement. Getting an accurate read on the data about how often people are dying in these incidents would seem to be a critical political function in an accountable society.

But the Federal Bureau of Investigation has long struggled to collect the data from local authorities who are, in turn, reluctant to self-report and self-police. Bergdorf’s team takes raw media reports and turns them into structured data. You can see it here in an online spreadsheet (or use it for your own analysis).

At present, that Google Sheet is the most comprehensive historical record of deaths at the hands of police officers. It also served as the basis for critically important media projects on this topic by The Washington Post and The Guardian.

Between active citizens and an active media, open data created by the people in the absence of a good government data reporting structure is already having an impact. There is a growing dialogue and many people are now asking why thousands of citizens die in the United States at the hands of law enforcement when this literally does not happen in comparable developed societies in Europe or Asia.

To tie this back to Flint, parents and community activists across the country are keenly interested in the state of their environment. Even the cynical can make the obvious economic connection that homes in a neighborhood marked by lead poisoning or other environmental woes will lose significant value.

For the parents of Flint, they face the most unspeakable horror. Their children will be less likely to graduate from college, more likely to go to jail and less likely to hold down a good job and live the American dream. Lead exposure at early ages results in permanent loss of IQ points.

One can’t help but think if you replace Flint with, say, Palo Alto or Noe Valley in the dialogues, the technosphere would be up in arms not only asking for fixes to the water supply but also demanding that they receive the test data as soon as it happens in a format they can easily analyze. In other words, not test data trapped in a PDF or a badly formatted spreadsheet with loads of merged rows and columns that takes significant time to flatten and clean.

And that’s the point. What’s good for Flint is good for Palo Alto. Open data can equally help rich and poor, young and old, by allowing us to hold our government more accountable and judge for ourselves. For governments, a mandate to move to machine-readable, near real-time open data would be a massive blessing in disguise because finally we could apply to the analog world the powerful tools we use to analyze online data.

Let’s be clear. Open data is not a panacea. It will not heal the sick. It won’t automatically repair the pipes in Flint. And open data does not mean all data should be open. Personnel files in many cases must remain closed, as should private records.

But open data for crime, the environment, spending, lobbying and all other data collected about our cities, counties and states is a very good start to letting both governments and citizens see their world with eyes wide open, through the lens and analytical power of data. Maybe the alarms in Flint would have gone off at the first signs of trouble.

Maybe not. But at least they would have had a chance. If the next president of the United States wants a moonshot, here’s my suggestion: Put us on a 10-year mandate for machinereadable open data at every level of government. Let Flint be a rallying cry. Make all government data machine readable and open the curtains to let in the light and the prying eyes.

More TechCrunch

Zen Educate, an online marketplace that connects schools with teachers, has raised $37 million in a Series B round of funding. The raise comes amid a growing teacher shortage crisis…

Zen Educate raises $37M and acquires Aquinas Education as it tries to address the teacher shortage

“When I heard the released demo, I was shocked, angered and in disbelief that Mr. Altman would pursue a voice that sounded so eerily similar to mine.”

Scarlett Johansson says that OpenAI approached her to use her voice

A new self-driving truck — manufactured by Volvo and loaded with autonomous vehicle tech developed by Aurora Innovation — could be on public highways as early as this summer.  The…

Aurora and Volvo unveil self-driving truck designed for a driverless future

The European venture capital firm raised its fourth fund as fund as climate tech “comes of age.”

ETF Partners raises €284M for climate startups that will be effective quickly — not 20 years down the road

Copilot, Microsoft’s brand of generative AI, will soon be far more deeply integrated into the Windows 11 experience.

Microsoft wants to make Windows an AI operating system, launches Copilot+ PCs

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch Space. For those who haven’t heard, the first crewed launch of Boeing’s Starliner capsule has been pushed back yet again to no earlier than…

TechCrunch Space: Star(side)liner

When I attended Automate in Chicago a few weeks back, multiple people thanked me for TechCrunch’s semi-regular robotics job report. It’s always edifying to get that feedback in person. While…

These 81 robotics companies are hiring

The top vehicle safety regulator in the U.S. has launched a formal probe into an April crash involving the all-electric VinFast VF8 SUV that claimed the lives of a family…

VinFast crash that killed family of four now under federal investigation

When putting a video portal in a public park in the middle of New York City, some inappropriate behavior will likely occur. The Portal, the vision of Lithuanian artist and…

NYC-Dublin real-time video portal reopens with some fixes to prevent inappropriate behavior

Longtime New York-based seed investor, Contour Venture Partners, is making progress on its latest flagship fund after lowering its target. The firm closed on $42 million, raised from 64 backers,…

Contour Venture Partners, an early investor in Datadog and Movable Ink, lowers the target for its fifth fund

Meta’s Oversight Board has now extended its scope to include the company’s newest platform, Instagram Threads, and has begun hearing cases from Threads.

Meta’s Oversight Board takes its first Threads case

The company says it’s refocusing and prioritizing fewer initiatives that will have the biggest impact on customers and add value to the business.

SeekOut, a recruiting startup last valued at $1.2 billion, lays off 30% of its workforce

The U.K.’s self-proclaimed “world-leading” regulations for self-driving cars are now official, after the Automated Vehicles (AV) Act received royal assent — the final rubber stamp any legislation must go through…

UK’s autonomous vehicle legislation becomes law, paving the way for first driverless cars by 2026

ChatGPT, OpenAI’s text-generating AI chatbot, has taken the world by storm. What started as a tool to hyper-charge productivity through writing essays and code with short text prompts has evolved…

ChatGPT: Everything you need to know about the AI-powered chatbot

SoLo Funds CEO Travis Holoway: “Regulators seem driven by press releases when they should be motivated by true consumer protection and empowering equitable solutions.”

Fintech lender SoLo Funds is being sued again by the government over its lending practices

Hard tech startups generate a lot of buzz, but there’s a growing cohort of companies building digital tools squarely focused on making hard tech development faster, more efficient and —…

Rollup wants to be the hardware engineer’s workhorse

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is not just about groundbreaking innovations, insightful panels, and visionary speakers — it’s also about listening to YOU, the audience, and what you feel is top of…

Disrupt Audience Choice vote closes Friday

Google says the new SDK would help Google expand on its core mission of connecting the right audience to the right content at the right time.

Google is launching a new Android feature to drive users back into their installed apps

Jolla has taken the official wraps off the first version of its personal server-based AI assistant in the making. The reborn startup is building a privacy-focused AI device — aka…

Jolla debuts privacy-focused AI hardware

The ChatGPT mobile app’s net revenue first jumped 22% on the day of the GPT-4o launch and continued to grow in the following days.

ChatGPT’s mobile app revenue saw its biggest spike yet following GPT-4o launch

Dating app maker Bumble has acquired Geneva, an online platform built around forming real-world groups and clubs. The company said that the deal is designed to help it expand its…

Bumble buys community building app Geneva to expand further into friendships

CyberArk — one of the army of larger security companies founded out of Israel — is acquiring Venafi, a specialist in machine identity, for $1.54 billion. 

CyberArk snaps up Venafi for $1.54B to ramp up in machine-to-machine security

Founder-market fit is one of the most crucial factors in a startup’s success, and operators (someone involved in the day-to-day operations of a startup) turned founders have an almost unfair advantage…

OpenseedVC, which backs operators in Africa and Europe starting their companies, reaches first close of $10M fund

A Singapore High Court has effectively approved Pine Labs’ request to shift its operations to India.

Pine Labs gets Singapore court approval to shift base to India

The AI Safety Institute, a U.K. body that aims to assess and address risks in AI platforms, has said it will open a second location in San Francisco. 

UK opens office in San Francisco to tackle AI risk

Companies are always looking for an edge, and searching for ways to encourage their employees to innovate. One way to do that is by running an internal hackathon around a…

Why companies are turning to internal hackathons

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

2 days ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’