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‘Give us the data that is ours:’ Digital Philadelphia Code for America open gov event [VIDEO]

"We need to tell the City that we can be better participants in our government if we can access our data"

Code for America partnered with civic groups to talk government data sharing (Photo by

City government collects the people”s data, and the people need to take it back.

That proved something of a theme of Wednesday night’s Digital Philadelphia Open Data event sponsored by Young Involved Philadelphia and Technically Philly.

Held in the beautiful third-floor theater of the Gershman Hall thanks to the Corzo Center of the University of the Arts, more than 50 interested residents and technologists came for a half-hour panel discussion followed by brainstorming sessions on what types of government information Philadelphians might most want.

Find photos of the event by John Mertens here.

“We need to tell the City that we can be better participants in our government if we can access our data,” said Aaron Ogle, a former Azavea developer and current Code for America Philadelphia team lead.

Code for America fellow Pete Fecteau sharing his group’s brainstorming on desired data. Photo by Christopher Wink.

What data the people want
Following the panel discussion, audience members were broken into five groups, led by Code for America fellows, and encouraged to brainstorm two questions: (a) what types of city information do residents want and (b) how would residents want to access it.
What information?

Five most desired: See a complete list of brainstorming here.

  1. Property profiles — Compiled across departments like L&I, BRT, Zoning and other agencies, each property should have searchable history, like a ‘Carfax for houses’
  2. City budget — Every allocated dollar clearly trackable online by department and by fiscal year, so tools could be created to build on it.
  3. SEPTA — Endless tracking data of schedules, budgets and locations
  4. Crime Data — Always a favorite among data heads, several groups wanted more accessible, complete and historical data.
  5. 311 — Data on common questions, location of requests, and other trends

How do you want it?

  1. Search directory of data — With voting
  2. Visualization — Tools to create maps, etc.
  3. Alerts-driven — RSS, email, SMS on what is happening

Moderated by this reporter, Ogle was joined on the panel by Division of Technology Chief of Staff Jeff Friedman, DOT software development manager Clinton Johnson, P’unk Ave founder Geoff DiMasi, who was on Mayor Nutter’s 2007 branding transition team, and Pete Fecteau, another of the seven Code for America Philly fellows.

The panel was meant to make clearer still what makes data so desired.

“It’s to hold processes accountable,” said Fecteau, the CFA fellow in the khaki sports coat and Buddy Holly glasses.

“But it has to be data that can be used, not just data for data’s sake,” DOT Chief of Staff Friedman added.

In their own way, the panelists each described the need for city government to create processes to document and share standards-based data that can be used to create tools and applications that community leaders, residents, journalists and others can employ for making government more transparent and efficient.

“There’s lots of information the city has, but we’re not set up, the business architecture just doesn’t exist yet to share this data in the right way, the right formats, regularly and accurately,” said Johnson, the DOT software developer.

He said there is little true philosophical push back from city leadership anymore for releasing data but rather concerns about staff capacity. Friedman, who also spent time in the Rendell and Street mayoral administrations, said there is true change in ethics and transparency interest under Nutter and the desire is there.
Staffing and prioritization is not yet.

“The hope for the future is the people in this room, people saying ‘Give us the data that is ours,’ and then building tools with that data,” said Ogle, the CFA fellow.
Open source public intellectual Tim O’Reilly has said that government needs to be seen more as platform, Ogle said, than a vending machine to be shook when what you ordered doesn’t get delivered.

For that, Ogle added, meaningful, accurate, updated data is an essential part.

Event Panel members from left: Pete Fecteau, Clinton Johnson, Aaron Ogle, Geoff DiMasi, this reporter, and Jeff Friedman at the podium. Photo by Sean Blanda.

Ultimately, data and the tools and applications that can be created with it should propel forward citizen action, said P’unk Ave founder DiMasi, dressed in his signature hooded sweatshirt.

DiMasi, who started the Passyunk Square Civic Association [Watch video of DiMasi discussing conflict he found from city political leadership] in the 1990s, said:

“Data should empower residents to make their communities better.”

Video highlights by Sean Blanda.

Companies: City of Philadelphia / Code for America / University of the Arts / Young Involved Philadelphia /

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