Philly’s New Mayor is Serious About Open Data

The big news recently in Philadelphia open data circles is the release of city employee salary information.

For the first time ever, the City of Philadelphia will make public – in easily usable formats – salary information on every city employee, including elected officials. This data is now available for anyone to download freely from the city’s open data portal and it will be updated quarterly.

Philadelphia City Hall

Philadelphia City Hall – photo courtesy of Flickr user Michael Righi.

No doubt about it – this is a major victory for journalists, good government advocates and open data enthusiasts in Philadelphia. But it’s also a victory for everyone that lives or works in Philadelphia. A fuller discussion of why this benefits everyone may be a key to understanding how the tenure of the city’s new Mayor may differ from the last one, particularly with respect to how the new administration engages and interacts with the public.

High Value Data

Information on public employee salaries is typically one of the most requested data sets from a municipal government, and Philadelphia is no different. For years, journalism outlets (including Philadelphia Magazine) and others interested in analyzing how the city works have submitted Right to Know requests to the city for this information. Responding to these numerous requests for the same data year in and year out is a bespoke, burdensome process that consumes finite city resources.

In addition, the Right to Know process can be length and time consuming. This can create a strong disincentive to those that may want or need the data, but lack the time, resources or expertise to navigate the bureaucratic process to get it.

Proactively releasing salary information as open data makes obvious sense from an efficiency standpoint.

How Open is Open

Salary data is also widely viewed as a touchstone data set for any government that bills itself as “open.”  Under the previous administration, an open data policy was adopted in 2012 with the stated goal of “creating a high level of openness and transparency in government,” and yet there was resistance to proactively releasing a data set publicly which was highly requested and clearly fell under the Commonwealth’s Open Data Law.

Every other major city in the country already releases data of this kind routinely as a part of their open data program. Until now, the City of Philadelphia held the somewhat dubious distinction of being the only large city in the country with an open data and transparency policy not to publicly release salary data.

For the Kenney Administration to prioritize the release of this data just a few months after Inauguration Day sends a very clear and very strong signal that this Mayor’s idea of openness differs significantly from the last Mayor.

Who Cares About Data?

But beyond good government advocates, journalists and data geeks, why should anyone in Philadelphia care about city employee salary data? How does the release of this data affect the average Philadelphian who may never visit the city’s open data portal, doesn’t know what an API or an open data format is, and who has no interest in crunching data sets?

The significance of this data release for everyone in Philadelphia, and the clues it may hold for what a Kenney Mayoralty may look like, lie in the nature of the data itself.

Many of the data sets that populate government open data portals are relatively limited in their use. This is not meant to diminish their importance, or the value in releasing this kind of data, but typically what you see is what you get. For example, data on the locations of parks, playgrounds, infrastructure and city facilities – a staple of most open data portals – are almost always used simply to identify or facilitate travel to one of those locations.

City employee salary and payroll information is different.

Like the release of property tax balance data that came just a few short days before the Kenney Administration began, salary data allows anyone to begin evaluating the quality of the job that the city is doing. Which departments have the largest share of city salaries? What employees, or departments are accumulating the most overtime?  How many unique job titles does the City of Philadelphia have, and how does this compare to other large cities? What is the salary range across job titles, and what drives the difference in salaries? Is the difference in salaries for the same job title too big?

This is just a small sampling of the questions that anyone can pose to the city using software they probably already have on their home or office computer. More than just a way of underscoring the importance of transparency, this data release feels like a signal that this Mayor wants to have a real conversation with the public where citizens are empowered to ask important (and sometimes tough) questions.

Whether it’s enabling people to evaluate how the city manages its payroll, determining whether permits and licenses are issued to tax delinquent properties or even how often the trains run on time, this is a very different way of governing a city. This data release suggests that the new Mayor wants to have an open conversation with the public and is inviting their input into how the city operates.

And that is something that everyone in Philadelphia can get excited about.

[Note – this post originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the online version of Philadelphia Magazine on April 6, 2016.]

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