(Photo by Flickr user Herbert Spencer, used under a Creative Commons license)
If you can’t quantify it, you can’t solve it.
That’s one of the first principles of the modern open data movement. It’s why the idea of government and institutions collecting and sharing little bits of reliable information should be important to us all.
It’s not just for the software developers and designers and data scientists and journalists. Those professionals play an important role in making open data more accessible and actionable, sure, but we need so many more to be involved. We need the nonprofit directors and civic leaders and subject matter experts of every kind.
We at Technical.ly have spent nearly a decade reporting on local open data efforts. Today, we’re announcing a six-month reporting project with PublicSource, the Pittsburgh-based public affairs news organization, to uncover successes, challenges and opportunities in that city’s local civic-tech movement. The partnership is possible because of the generous support of the Heinz Endowments.
Pittsburgh is an ideal testbed for this work, with its proud tech sector, active philanthropic community, interested local government and early experiments. But there are problems too, in part because some potential partners are either intimidated by technology or simply resistant to change.
We at Technical.ly (led by my colleague Julie Zeglen and on-the-ground beat reporter Kim Lyons) will begin curating a weekly Pittsburgh tech newsletter, with a special eye for the reporting on open data that both we and PublicSource will be taking on.
For this conversation to succeed locally, the importance of civic technology needs to be explored and connected on the ground.
If there is any big and heady civic issue you care about — public safety, transportation, health — then there is likely a thicket of data sets that can help explain its inputs, outputs and, with enough ingenuity, its solutions. For most of history, big-data collection was so expensive that it was largely only led by nation-states and later the international bodies, agencies and organizations that supported them.
In recent decades, that has expanded dramatically, with the help of scalable software, open source technology and civically minded tech communities. Today, the most exciting examples of the purpose and promise of open data are taking place at the local level.
If cities are where many of society’s problems are magnified, it can also be where they are first salved, then solved. To do it, city, county and state governments must first make outside solutions possible, and that is the beauty of open data. Open data is an enabler — the infrastructure by which universities, foundations, trade groups, news organizations and do-gooding technologists can quantify civic challenges and work alongside municipal efforts to overcome them.
This project’s reporting will aim to highlight successes by sharing details on how they can be replicated. We’ll also aim to help find where there are obstacles — not to shame, but to instead unpack how things can be done better.
If we want a better Pittsburgh, this is where it will begin. Join us.
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