Civic News
Data / Municipal government

Tim Wisniewski, Philly’s new Chief Data Officer, on his top 3 priorities

In the waning years of the Nutter administration, how does Wisniewski plan to advance the mayor's open data policy? From more public-facing apps to an "Open Data Census," here's his game plan.

A two-person office at Eaton House. (Photo courtesy of Eaton Workshop)

Two years after Mayor Michael Nutter issued an open data executive order, Philadelphia has a new Chief Data Officer: Tim Wisniewski.

Wisniewski, 26, of Northern Liberties, has long been a fixture of the city’s civic hacking scene, participating in hackathons and building apps before he was a city employee. In four years, the amiable, if buttoned-up, Southampton, Pa., native rose from hobbyist hacker to 311 mobile app project manager to Philadelphia’s first Director of Civic Technology. Wisniewski was appointed Chief Data Officer after his predecessor, Mark Headd, quit, amid frustrations with some city departments, last April.

Now, with less than two years of the Nutter administration remaining, how does Wisniewski plan to carry out the mayor’s executive order and instill open data in the city’s bones? We sat down with him to hear his top three priorities. Here’s what he told us:

  • Release data that’s geared toward the public. Wisniewski wants to release data that’s in a format that’s accessible for all Philadelphians, not just the “1 percent” that knows how to use an API. “We want to make sure we’re reaching 100 percent of Philadelphians,” he said. That means more public-facing apps, like the property assessment calculator and the crime map that’s on the Philly Police website, not just data in spreadsheets and other machine-readable formats released on developer library Github. Wisniewski wants to use the city’s landing page, phila.gov, to push open data to city dwellers.
  • Empower agencies to take ownership of open data releases. The language should not be “the City of Philadelphia released this data” or “the Office of Innovation and Technology released this data,” but that “this city agency released this data,” Wisniewski said. Ideally, the city’s data team will help agencies release data but it’ll be an effort that the agencies own themselves. It’s one way to make sure the open data ethos lasts, he said. That way, he said, “it’s less about any one individual’s tenure, and more about how we do business as a government.”
  • Use data to drive open data decisions. Wisniewski and his team are analyzing and collecting data — Right to Know requests, input from community stakeholders — to see what data the city should release. Data releases shouldn’t be based on anecdotal evidence or the needs of one particular community. He plans to release an “Open Data Census” this summer, which will present his team’s findings, including a “top 20” list of high-value data sets. One data set on that list is city contracts for commodities (objects, rather than services).

Wisniewski also stressed the importance of relationship building, saying that his job would be 99 percent about people and 1 percent about technology. To insiders, it’s a comment that calls his predecessor to mind: Headd pointed to a strained relationship between himself and Revenue Commissioner Clarena Tolson as one reason he felt he could no longer do his job.

Like Headd, Wisniewski remains active in the local technology scene, attending most every weekly Code for Philly civic hacking meetup, participating as a mentor in Girl Develop It‘s summer open source fellowship and attending hackathons.

Wisniewski will lead a staff of 14. While the OIT is open to hiring another Director of Civic Technology, it’s not the focus right now, he said.

Companies: City of Philadelphia

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