The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) generates millions of documents regarding its regulation of television, radio, telecommunications, satellite and cable, but much of that information was not always readily accessible to the public nor easily understood.
As the FCC’s geographic information officer, Michael Byrne helped change this landscape, creating online maps and presenting data in ways that have made enormous amounts of information instantly available to consumers, citizen-activists and policymakers, and provided the business community with facts to make more informed commercial decisions.
Byrne’s signature accomplishment is the National Broadband Map, an interactive and searchable online map showing broadband availability nationwide, in many cases in block-by-block detail. The data, based on more than 25 million records gathered from each state and updated every six months, allows consumers to search by address to find the fastest Internet service provider to serve their homes.
The map, created in cooperation with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, offers many ways to utilize the data, allowing comparisons of different regions of the country, viewing data for a single provider or showing gaps in service. Many national statistics also are available. Since its launch in 2011 through Summer 2014, the map has drawn more than 1.5 million unique visitors, and more than 7 million page views.
Byrne also created online maps showing the available geographic locations for starting low-power FM radio stations; visualizations of international call volume; the locations of proposed new cellphone tower construction; maps with data down to the Census block showing availability of spectrum to be auctioned off by the FCC; and maps displaying where federal aid has been awarded to create broadband availability to schools and health care providers in rural and urban areas.
“Michael Byrne literally put the FCC on the map,” said David Bray, the FCC’s chief information officer. “He demonstrated that you could produce maps or geospatial visualizations on critical policy issues and provide information that was not publicly available or easily accessible to the public or even to people inside the FCC itself.”
Dan Daly, the chief of staff to the FCC’s managing director, said the purpose of the National Broadband Map is to illustrate the level of competition in every area of the nation, identify where Internet service is lacking or not up to speed, and find ways to fill those gaps through government assistance or by spurring private-sector investments.
“The map provided new insights into the actual state of broadband in the country,” said Daly. “Michael came in, took the map project straight on and worked tirelessly to make it happen.”
Ruth Milkman, the chief of staff to the FCC chairman, said Byrne also mapped the location of the wireless spectrum—the frequencies over which signals are transmitted—that were available for auction to telecommunication companies. She said the interactive maps gave the companies engaged in the bidding process a bird’s-eye view of what was available, where it was located, the kind of geographic terrain involved and other relevant information that helped them refine their financial calculations.
“The telecommunications companies told us it was incredibly helpful in their bidding preparation process because of the richness of the information,” said Milkman. “It was the first time the commission had ever done this and it was very successful.”
Milkman said Byrne’s work has helped create “true transparency” for a great deal of complex information that now can be used by the public without the need for a lawyer or someone with a doctorate.
“Michael comes into a room and makes everybody smarter. He asks questions to make people think about doing things in new ways that help both the commission and the public,” said Milkman.
Byrne, who recently left the FCC to take a similar job with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, also played a critical role in reshaping some of the FCC’s internal information technology operations.
Diane Cornell, an FCC special counsel, said the agency’s many bureaus receive information in different formats that often are not compatible, making it hard for the agency to easily share and track it internally. She said Byrne used his analytical skills to help set a new direction in the way the agency collects and shares its data, and was able to “translate his ideas in ways that people without an information technology background can understand.”
Byrne said there is no reason that the FCC’s rich trove of data should be limited to only those with specialized knowledge and skills.
“My job has been to take this data and information that is really complicated and make a picture out if it so that it is easy to digest,” said Byrne. “These maps are a way to communicate what we are doing as an agency and help better inform policymakers and the public.”