Friday, December 19, 2014

Here's some inspiration for Philadelphia's open data program

City Hall in Philadelphia. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
City Hall in Philadelphia. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Philadelphia is a city that is accustomed to teaching outwards, to inspiring others.

Everyone knows that democracy started here, but Philadelphia is somewhat less well-known as a pioneer in a number of other areas. Engage those that love her in conversation and they may reluctantly point out how Philly is a “city of firsts.”

But much of the success of the City of Philadelphia’s open data program was inspired by an earlier effort that started surprisingly close to home. The city is now at an important point in its open data evolution - the events that happen between now and time the current mayor leaves office could shape the direction of the city’s open data efforts for many years to come.

It is time once again for the City of Philadelphia to find inspiration for its open data program from another effort that is close to home, to help ensure its vitality and success into the future.

The inspiration for open data in Philadelphia

Several years before Philadelphia City government began its open data efforts in earnest and adopted a formal open data policy, the transit authority serving Philadelphia championed open data in the region.

Like many large transit authorities, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) was dragged somewhat kicking and screaming into the world of open data. Pioneering civic hackers scraped the SEPTA website for schedule information to build new mobile apps that were more intuitive and easier to use.

When SEPTA management finally awoke to the potential benefits of open data, the floodgates of transit data opened. SEPTA began publishing open data, deploying APIs and engaging the local developer community to find out how they wanted to use the new data and what apps they wanted to build. When SEPTA officials actually attended the city’s first ever transit hackathon in the fall of 2011, local civic hackers realized they were on to something.

Many of those involved in the original SEPTA hackathon and others that had been advocating for more open data in Philadelphia for years joined together and petitioned the city’s newly appointed Chief Innovation Officer and urged the city to adopt a formal open data policy.

We can draw a straight line from the early open data efforts that culminated in SEPTA’s adoption of more structured developer program to the City of Philadelphia’s adoption of a formal open data policy and creation of the position of Chief Data Officer.

Open data - It’s a matter of trust

It’s easy for people not intimately familiar with open data to see a stark contrast between data that has more of an operational focus, versus data that has a transparency focus. The former is sometimes referred to as “civic exhaust” and is the primary input into events like civic hackathons and efforts to encourage the development of new civic startups. Data that is perceived to be focused more purely on transparency can be viewed as less valuable to business development efforts.

But for civic hacking and entrepreneurial activities to develop beyond the primordial stages, citizen hackers and startups need to have faith that government leaders will continue to invest in open data. You can’t build a business on a foundation that may go away if the political environment changes or if there is a turnover in city leadership. Failure to build this faith can stall the growth of civic hacking and the creation of new business opportunities.

One of the most important things that governments can do to build this trust with data consumers is to release data that enhances government transparency. If governments aren’t willing to invest in releasing data that empowers others to evaluate their performance, it is much less likely that an open data program will survive the disruption of a change in administration, or the changes in the local political landscape that can so dramatically alter the face of city governments.

Governments that make an investment in releasing data that allows outsiders to ask tough questions are sending a clear signal to prospective data users that they are serious, that the foundations of data sharing are solid.

Looking for open data inspiration

With the many government leaders I talk with about open data, my advice is always that one of the primary areas where open data needs to be released is around budget and finance data. A city can’t be open unless it freely shares, in usable formats, data on how it is spending money, with whom and for how much.

Most other major cities have already made investment in releasing data about budget expenditures, contracts with vendors and employee salaries. Philadelphia is a notable exception - the city does not currently release budget or expenditure data in open formats, or information on employee salaries for public use. But one public institution in Philadelphia recently took steps to buck this trend - the School District of Philadelphia.

Over the past several months the SDP has taken great strides to release data on its budget and finances and what it pays district employees. School officials are doing this during a time when the district is under significant financial duress and unparalleled public scrutiny. While officials in city government continue to debate the merits of releasing data on city expenditures and employee salaries (both have been targeted for open data releases for more than a year), the school district has provided a vision for where city government needs to go.

The City of Philadelphia should take inspiration once again from another local public institution that is showing it the path forward. It’s time for the City to make good on the promise of being open and release data on city expenditures and employee salaries. A failure to do this before the current mayor leaves office will not bode well for the future of open data on the City of Brotherly Love.

Mark Headd is the former Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia, serving as one of the first municipal Chief Data Officers in the United States and was also Director of Government Relations at Code for America.  He currently works with civic technologists and open data advocates as a Developer Evangelist for Accela, Inc. He attends civic hacking events in Philly and other cities and blogs about open data at civic.io.

The Sunlight Foundation is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that uses the power of the Internet to catalyze greater government openness and transparency, and provides new tools and resources for media and citizens, alike. A list of Sunlight's funders can be found here.

Mark Headd SUNLIGHT FOUNDATION
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