Openness in government strengthens our democracy, promotes the delivery of efficient and effective services to the public, and contributes to economic growth.
— Federal Executive Order on Open Data, Section 1.
People in the open government community talk a lot about the potential and promise of open data. The things that it might enable. The problems it might help fix. The possibilities.
Each new instance where we see open data get used to address a problem facing a city or a community is a testament to its true power, and a validation of the work governments do to open it up and make it usable. When we see open data get put to use in the way that we envision it, it can be a very gratifying thing.
A new website in Philadelphia focused on the challenge of unused vacant land demonstrates how open data is supposed to work. It’s built using a variety of data sources made available by the City of Philadelphia, and it allows people to discover vacant land in their neighborhoods.
This isn’t the first web site to aggregate data on vacant land in Philadelphia, which underscores how pressing an issue it is for our city. One of the things I like most about the site is how it frames information about vacant land with an eye toward reuse. The site tells you the planing and zoning district a property is in, as well as the City Council district.
It tells you if there is a structure on the property by checking it against the city’s Stormwater Billing system, and if a user thinks it might be suitable to convert into a community garden there are resources available to assist.
Want to watch a specific property, or organize neighbors around it? Want to improve the data by uploading a photo, or indicating whether something is reported incorrectly? Want to purchase a property through a Sheriff Sale or through an arrangement with a private owner? The site has information and resources to assist with all of these.
The site even hints at where the City of Philadelphia should go next with it’s open data efforts. One of the data sources used by the site is an independently built API for property information. The data powering this API is actually scraped from the City’s website because it is not currently available as a data download or through a city-owned API. This is something we are currently working to change, but the fact that this site makes use of scraped data underscores the need for the City of Philadelphia to release this data in a more open format.
This site is everything that advocates of open data hope for when they work to make data more readily available and to provide documentation on how to use it. What’s most interesting about it is that not once did the sponsors or developers interact with City IT staff while building it. Data that is truly open means that users don’t need to ask for permission before they use it, or for instructions on how to use it.
Open data works best when it is readily available for those that need it, to build useful services and apps that help address the challenges facing our communities.
This is the way that open data is supposed to work.