Communities Matter

Philadelphia is unique among big cities in how it publishes open data for civic hackers, journalists, entrepreneurs, researchers and other users.

The City of Philadelphia has designated the community-built Open Data Philly website as it’s official data directory for open data – we’re the only big city in the country (maybe the only city period) that does not unilaterally control the data portal where city departments publish their data.

This website is shut down

Pursuing a strategy like this is not without its challenges, but I believe that it is ultimately a better way to engage the community of users around open data releases. The members of our open data community are all stakeholders in the operation and management of the city’s open data portal. They can submit new data sources for inclusion in the portal, and they can suggest changes in how the platform works.

The federal government shutdown this week – which resulted in the federal open data site,, going offiline – offers an object lesson in the benefits of community managed open data portals like those in Philadelphia, Louisville, Colorado and other places. A government shutdown can’t impact sites that the government does not unilaterally control.

And this raises some interesting questions – can an open data initiative be truly open if the government that starts it can shut it down? What happens to an open data portal when municipal leaders that start open data initiatives leave office, are voted out or are replaced by those that are less enlightened?

Some things to consider as we continue to build our community here in Philly.

This Is How It’s Supposed To Work

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.

Why Publish Open Data?

I get this question a lot, particularly from government officials who may still be skeptical about the real benefits.

And though I feel like I’ve made the open data pitch a thousand times before, working in city government for the past year has focused me on the practical aspects of this question. What are the real, practical benefits that accrue when governments release open data?

Here are three that I think are important.

First, releasing data in open formats can dramatically reduce the amount of time and effort it takes to respond to open record / FOIA requests. For some government agencies, responding to these requests takes a non-trivial amount of time – particularly if they are not done in a coordinated fashion. I’ve witnessed agencies first hand manually work through open records requests for the exact same data over and over and over. This makes no sense, especially if the data has already been deemed public and suitable for release. Publishing frequently requested data in an open format allows people to self serve, and preserves internal staff time for more pressing needs.

In addition, if your city, county or state government only maintains data publicly as part of a web document or web site there is a good chance it is being scraped. My experience is that this happens much more frequently than most government employees think. Scraping can cause undue burden on your IT infrastructure and undue stress on your IT staff that may be tasked with trying to troubleshoot issues caused by scrapers gone wild.

Second, when governments release data apps happen. We’ve seen this happen with our data releases in Philadelphia, and examples of useful and valuable apps built on open data abound. The potential for app development is greatly increased when there are standards that different governments can adopt – some good examples are GTFS and Open311, and there are developing standards around traffic data, restaurant inspections and facilities that dispense inoculations against infectious diseases.

Governments that release open data can leverage both their local developer communities and the efforts of developers elsewhere to bring useful apps to their citizens.

Finally, governments that share open data with outside consumers lay the foundation for a different, equally important, kind of sharing – sharing data across government agencies. In Philadelphia we are seeing a number of potentially valuable opportunities surface for different city departments to improve their operations by sharing data originally meant to be shared with outside developers.

Cities – big ones especially – are notoriously complex and stovepiped. In Philadelphia, the department that grants property tax exemptions is different than the one that collect property tax payments. What if we could condition the granting of exemptions on whether a property owner was current on their tax payments? Sounds simple, yet because of bureaucratic complexity it often is not. Open data can help correct this, particularly if it is structured for easy use by outside developers as an API.

Because Philly has been at this (both formally and informally) for a few years now we’re starting to identify opportunities to share data across different government entities that serve the city. We’re in discussions with our local gas utility to provide them with property data from our Office of Property Assessment so that they can verify their account information. In return, we hope to get data on utility accounts that see lots of turnover (suggesting renters moving in an out) and match it against our database of rental licences – this might be a nice revenue enhancement opportunity. The possibilities are worth spending time thinking about.

We’re in the early stages of seeing internal operational efficiencies grow out of our open data efforts, but we’re here now because we got started with releasing open data to outside users and civic hackers.

Any government that wants to start down this road will quickly start to see the benefits. They just have to get started.

Philly Tech Week Hackathon Recap

On Saturday, April 28th, the 2nd Philly Tech Week came to a close.

Like the inaugural Philly Tech Week last year, this weeklong series of technology events and panels concluded with a hackathon focused on open government data and journalism.

This way to the hackathon

I gave a brief preview of this event over on the Code for America blog, and shared some observations on how I thought this event was pushing the boundaries of what the “traditional” notion of a hackathon is:

This event – which took place in conjunction with BarCamp News Innovation – was a mashup of journalism unconference and open data hackathon. More clearly than most events, this one underscored the important relationships between civic hackers and journalists, and the common interest they both have in open government data.

In my mind, this event also highlights the maturity of the open data and civic hacking cultures in Philadelphia – the only city to date to partner with Code for America for two years in a row.

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The Next Big Thing: Open311 Inquiry API

Earlier this month, Philip Ashlock of OpenPlans published a nice Open311 “wish list” for the new year.

There is a lot of exciting stuff on this list, and Phil’s thoughts are sure to be the basis for lots of innovative and interesting work in 2012.

311 Contact Center

When people think about the “Open311 standard” they typically think of the GeoReport V2 specification. This is the spec that details the interface for submitting non-emergency service requests to municipalities.

Reporting potholes, graffiti, garbage on the streets, etc. is often what people envision when they think of municipal 311 service. But this is only part (actually, a relatively small part) of the types of contacts that 311 centers receive.

For most 311 centers, the majority of contacts involve not the reporting of an incident, but an inquiry – a question about government services or a request for information.

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