In a Jan. 20 opinion piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer, former Nutter administration official Terry Gillen called on candidates in this year’s Mayoral election to make ethics reform a key part of their platforms, to “prevent city government from backsliding into corruption.”
Gillen is right to call for such a commitment, and candidates would do well to clearly articulate their plans to foster and maintain an ethical city government. But for voters in Philadelphia, the choice in this year’s election is not just about electing candidates that support ethics — it’s also about what specifically that commitment to ethics will look like.
Open data is an ethics issue.
Over his two terms in office, Mayor Nutter has taken steps to institutionalize ethics and has appointed top officials to help execute his vision for a more effective city government. (I had the great privilege to work with one of these officials — former Chief Integrity Officer Joan Markman — during my time in city government.) However, it is worth noting that over the course of his two terms as Mayor, the idea of what an “ethical government” means has changed rather dramatically.
Whatever it meant in 2008, the contemporary vision of an ethical, open government is one that is built on a foundation of information — or more specifically, data.
In 2015 and beyond, citizens need no longer rely solely on champions within government to ensure ethical behavior on the part of elected or appointed officials. The inexorable march of technological advancement has placed powerful tools for processing and displaying data — tools once beyond the reach of most people — into the hands of ordinary citizens. This has enabled people in cities across the country (and around the world) to have a more intimate view into the operation of their governments and the behavior of public officials than they have ever had before.
- In Chicago, citizens can track the progress of snow plows in real time and monitor when flooding causes excess wastewater to be dumped into nearby lakes and rivers as it occurs.
- In New York City, citizens can get a granular view of city spending and download the salaries of all government officials.
- And in Philadelphia, citizens can create a custom view of crime incidents that have occurred on a neighborhood level and track how much the arrival and departure times of SEPTA trains diverge from the public schedule.
All of these examples, and the many others being built around the country, are made by private citizens using “open data” from the government.
Open data means information that is released by governments in specific formats that make it possible to be used by others — researchers, journalists, entrepreneurs, civic activists, etc. The City of Philadelphia has been a national leader in open data since the launch of the community website opendataphilly.org in 2011. In 2012, Mayor Nutter signed an executive order to make releasing open data an official policy of city government, and since then dozens of new city data sets have been released to the public.
But as the third anniversary of the signing of this executive order approaches, followed closely by the Philadelphia Democratic Primary, it seems appropriate for Philadelphians to take stock of how open their city government really is.
Where Philadelphia falls short.
The record of the current administration on open data may provide some guidance for voters as they head to the polls in just a few short months.
For example, despite the adoption of the executive order on open data the city has not yet released detailed spending information in an open format or a list of the salaries for public officials and employees — almost every other large city in America currently makes these kinds of information available as open data.
The city has not yet released data on property tax collections or ownership information for derelict properties that is of great interest in neighborhoods across the city. And the process used by the city to respond to public Right-to-Know requests is slow and cumbersome and often fails to live up to the rhetoric around the open data effort.
Philadelphia voters have an opportunity to ensure that their next mayor is as committed to the idea of ethical government as the outgoing one. They now have the opportunity to ask candidates to clearly articulate their plans for ensuring that city government is open, ethical and responsive.
Mayor Nutter famously located the office of the Chief Integrity Officer directly next to his own in the mayoral office suite to send a message to everyone in city government that ethics was a priority in his administration. It’s time for the next mayor of Philadelphia to send the the same kind of message about the importance of publishing open data.