10 October, 2016

Melhor da Zona or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Data Transparency

The project "Melhor da Zona" (which roughly translates to "Best in the Area") was presented at Pixels.camp with a talk entitled Melhor Da Zona or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Data Transparency. This is the description of the talk that was submitted:

This talk is about how a culture of data sharing and transparency in government institutions, fosters important and unexpected changes to society. To illustrate this point, I'm going to talk about Melhor da Zona, a web app that lets you search the best driving schools in your area.

The idea was born out of the realization that the only metric available for comparing driving schools, was the school's "licence" price. This creates an unfortunate situation where schools are forced to compete for low prices and compromise on quality. Also, schools lose all incentives to provide a better service because the teaching quality, i.e. pass rates, are never publicly known. If this information was published, then students would be able to compare price against quality and make a better informed decision.

In the beginning of 2015, the Institute for Transport and Mobility (IMT) published the pass rates of driving schools, with a break down for theoretical exams and practical exams for the different driving classes.

Our idea, a very simple one, to aggregate the scattered data for pass rates and addresses and assign a searchable geo index to them, received a divided reaction from driving schools. There were those schools that were very pleased and understandably, those who were not that pleased. Defamatory blog posts and minor threats followed, cobbled together with complaints about the data origin and "the IMT methodology".

However, the only change we introduced was data accessibility and therefore, better UX. The information was already available in the IMT website for almost a year by the time we published our website. The only difference was that we had an intuitive way to query it and students were actually knowing about it.

Having an intuitive way to search for driving schools has marked the difference between students knowing or not knowing about it, and schools ignoring it or being very worried. The lesson to be learned is that if data is simply dumped in a location, users can't do much with it, they can't reason about it and in cases like this, it's equal to not being there at all.

However, none of this could have happened, if the pass rates weren't published by the government in the first place. What other examples are out there? What other use cases and shifts could happen simply by having government institutions releasing data to the public?

You can download the full presentation here.

UPDATE: you can now watch the video of the talk on youtube.

If you read Portuguese and want to learn more about the project you can check the following links:

(Edited 3/12/2020: originally published at datajournal.co.uk.)