What open data we care about: moderating Code for America Digital Philadelphia event

Photo by John Mertens.

The first concerted effort to seek what types of city government data and information Philadelphians want was kicked off last night with an event I helped organize on behalf of Technically Philly with Young Involved Philadelphia.

Partnered with the Code for America fellowship program, I moderated a panel meant to illustrate concrete and simple definitions and needs for city data that was then followed by a half dozen breakout sessions in which moderators had their dozen group members answer two questions:

  1. What city information would you actually use?
  2. How would you want to access that information?

Read my coverage of the event here, including reference to this Google Doc, in which I tallied the suggestions. This event is one of four big lessons we’re learning while leading this grant project.

More details and video below.

The panel was top notch:

  • Geoff DiMassi is the founder of web development firm P’unk Ave and a leader in the Passyunk Square neighborhood in which it is based. He was on Mayor Nutter’s 2007 IT policy transition team.
  • Clinton Johnson is a software development manager with the City of Philadelphia’s Division of Technology.
  • Aaron Ogle is a former developer with local GIS shop Azavea and now a fellow with Code for America. He has particular interest in urban sustainability and data-driven online tools.
  • Jeff Friedman is the Division of Technology’s Chief of Staff. He formerly worked in the Rendell and Street administrations and was a project manager on the implementation of 311 in Philadelphia.
  • Pete Fecteau, from Grand Rapids, Mich., is also a CFA fellow and former developer for the Salvation Army.

The question that solicited the strongest response was my final one: What is the greatest hope and the greatest challenge for tech-focused transparency in the City of Philadelphia?

I think it’s worth sharing their answers in full, as I didn’t get to include it all in the event story:

  • Geoff DiMassi of P’unk Ave

    • Greatest hope: ‘Keep chopping,’ like his alma mater football team at Rutgers University that went to a notoriously unsuccessful program to slowly building in to something celebrated.
    • Greatest obstacle: “We have too much to do’ attitude.
  • Clinton Johnson of DOT
    • Greatest hope: There aren’t truly political barriers to the philosophy of open data anymore
    • Greatest obstacle: The city doesn’t have the business architecture to deploy data in the right way yet.
  • Aaron Ogle of CFA
    • Greatest hope: “The people in this room,’ referring to involved Philadelphians clamoring for data
    • Greatest obstacle: the politics
  • Peter Fecteau of CFA
    • Greatest hope: Outside support like CFA and the group assembled
    • Greatest obstacle: The myths of what can’t be done in city government
  • Jeff Friedman of DOT
    • Greatest hope: Momentum, within the administration, the city and excitement around data
    • Greatest obstacle: Conventional wisdom of what is possible in city government and around transparency

Below, watch me push a question on what realistic expectations residents can have of budget-strapped governments around open data. (The answers were largely around steady movement toward opening of data, not application development or any dramatic moves quickly.)

Ahead of the panel, I tossed a few questions the way of the panelists to engender the best conversation, though I didn’t get to most of them:

  1. What are we really talking about when it comes to data and transparent government? [asked]
  2. Where does Philadelphia stand compared to other big cities in terms of transparency and other data-driven IT initiatives?
  3. Describe some really concrete, actionable, realistic applications and tools that could come from city data, from third-party developers and/or Code for America? [asked]
  4. Outgoing City CTO Allan Frank has much more a legacy for big picture objectives, and now interim CTO Tommy Jones has prioritized focus in his leadership. How important are transparency and data movements, when some say basic city IT infrastructure needs greater attention? What are realistic expectations from residents? [asked]
  5. What is the greatest hope and the greatest challenge for tech-focused transparency in the City of Philadelphia? [asked]
  6. What are the roles of of technologists, of journalists, of business leaders and other average citizens in making a more transparent government?
  7. Is the City of Philadelphia more transparent, tech-focused and/or web-savvy than it was before the Nutter administration came in? (Take your pick).
  8. How does Code for America fit into this all. Is this the silver bullet? Is Philadelphia and the city government going to be fundamentally different after this experience? If not, does it matter? If so, how?