Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jonathan Khoo.
The centerpiece of any government open data effort is usually a data portal.
Data portals host open data or provide listings for datasets, and typically include things like license information, data schemas, developer documentation and a host of other details aimed at making it easier for end consumers to find and use data. There is a great deal of variation in the degree to which government data portals succeed in making it easier for people to find and use data – some do it very well, others do not.
In some ways, an open data portal can simultaneously represent all that is right with a government open data program – all the potential it has for changing the way government works and how people interact with their government – as well as all of its limitations.
I am not unbiased in this opinion.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Nan Palmero
I recently had an opportunity to speak about open data at the annual Joint Education Conference of the Nevada Food Safety Task Force. Not the most obvious venue for a discussion of civic collaboration, but I sometimes go where the open data currents take me. And so it was this time.
Sandwiched in between talks about new technology to measure and collect data on food temperature and hand washing frequency at food service establishments, I made a pitch to those in attendance about the importance (and the power) of open data. A quick initial poll of the audience revealed just a few that knew about open data – what it was or why governments were interested in it. I sometime think these kinds of presentations – though an immediate positive reaction can be less certain – are often more impactful than presenting to groups that are already familiar with open data. They provide an opportunity to create new converts – a welcome idea to an old catholic school boy like myself on the road stumping for government innovation.
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 – 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.
Photo courtesy of flickr user SalemSaugusNPS
Unshoveled sidewalks during the winter months are a persistent problem for cities in the snow belt.
For places with significant snowfall, unshoveled sidewalks pose a challenge to public safety and mobility for those that rely on walking (or public transit), and present an especially acute problem for those that have physical impairments. Uncleared snowfall on other kinds of public infrastructure – like fire hydrants – also poses dangers for city residents and public safety workers.
This is a sometimes daunting issue for cities that government officials, community groups and civic technologists perennially struggle with. Over the past several years, a number of civic technology projects have been initiated with the goal of mitigating the problem of uncleared sidewalks and other public infrastructure in cities. Few have been widely adopted, and – if we’re being honest – the impact of these efforts on reducing the problems associated with uncleared snowfall has been minimal.
Certain aspects of the problem seems relatively straightforward, and would appear to be a pretty good fit for a properly designed civic app. But despite several different efforts, there is not yet a widely adopted civic tech solution that most people would agree has had a meaningful impact on the problem.
In many ways, unshoveled sidewalks help highlight both the potential and the limitations of civic technology. For those that care about civic tech, this issue is worth understanding more fully.
Photo courtesy of flickr user r2hox.
Data is the lifeblood of civic technology.
It is the source of all innovation and advancement in civic tech, and is the basis for developing new ways of engaging with voters and taxpayers so that they may be informed about how government works and – hopefully – to help make it operate more effectively.
Without data, civic technology doesn’t work.
The good news is that more and more governments are opening up their data – adopting new open data policies and standing up new portals to share their data with the public (and themselves). This moves the needle on civic tech but, increasingly, it also highlights the single biggest challenge facing the civic tech community.
We lack well developed, widely adopted standards for data that will enable civic tech solutions to scale.
The recent article “Open Data and Civic Apps: First-Generation Failures, Second Generation Improvements” by Melissa Lee, Esteve Almirall and Jonathan Wareham looks at early efforts to build civic applications through government-sponsored app challenges.
The article evaluates the outcomes of some of the early government app challenges like the District of Columbia’s Apps for Democracy Contest and offers observations on several new approaches being employed by governments to derive “greater civic benefit” from open data programs.
Right before the New Year’s holiday, the City of Philadelphia released some very important information as open data.
The city released a data set showing outstanding property tax balances for properties in Philadelphia, making the data available as both a static download and through an API.
I’ve always believed that this data was incredibly important – not just because it might be used to help the city improve its dismal record on collecting delinquent property taxes (which help fund both city operations and the School District of Philadelphia), but also because of the potential to encourage people to think differently about how data can be used to reshape city services.
In early December, Airbnb made headlines by releasing some data on how people are using the company’s platform in New York City.
In doing so, the company has provided an object lesson in the critical role that data plays (and will continue to play) in government regulation of private companies in the 21st century, and highlighted how ill-equipped governments are to obtain and use this data.
Airbnb and the State
Over the past year, the use of Airbnb to rent properties in New York has received intense scrutiny from government regulators because of suspicion that a non-trivial amount of rentals listed on the site were in violation of state or city rules. In late 2014, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman released a report examining Airbnb rentals in New York that concluded that “most short-term rentals booked [through Airbnb’s service] in New York violate the law.”
Image courtesy of Flickr user Joe Flintham.
A few days ago, Tom Steinberg – the founder and former director of mySociety – wrote a fascinating piece on power that was meant for people developing civic technology.
In a post on Medium, Tom clearly describes the nature of power as it relates to technology and implored civic technologists to think more directly about how power shifts can be caused by the development and adoption of new technologies. He uses the analogy of a nuclear bomb and the contraceptive pill to describe the different kinds of power shifts that can occur when technology becomes more broadly adopted.
Designing simple systems is one of the great challenges of Government 2.0. It means the end of grand, feature-filled programs, and their replacement by minimal services extensible by others.
— Tim O’Reilly, Open Government
The original idea of Government as a Platform is now almost a decade old. In the world of technology, that’s a long time.
In that time, people working inside and outside of government to implement this idea have learned a lot about what works well, and what does not. In addition, we’ve seen some significant changes in the world of technology over the past decade or so, and the way the we develop solutions (both in the world of civic tech, and outside of it) have changed fairly dramatically.
The power of the original idea for Government as a Platform continues to echo in the world of civic tech and open data. I have no doubt that it will for a long time to come.
But in 2015 what does Government as a Platform actually look like, and what should it look like going forward into the future? What are its component parts? How does it manifest in terms of actual infrastructure, both inside and outside government?
And, most importantly, who controls this infrastructure and has a say in how it is shaped and used.