Civic News

What happens to OpenDataPhilly now?

Since launching as the country's first community-driven local public data catalog during Philly Tech Week 2011, OpenDataPhilly has served as a bedrock for the city's civic hacking movement. Just two years later, its future is uncertain again.

WeWorkinPhilly is a community-edited resource supported by, in part, hackathons like this, which happened in September 2013 and was hosted by PeopleLinx. Should it be a model for other resources like it?

Full Disclosure: This reporter was involved in early strategy planning for what became OpenDataPhilly, has been involved as a stakeholder in AxisPhilly planning and is closely involved in broad open data conversations and actors in the city.
Updated Sat. Sept. 21 @ 5:30pm: A commitment by AxisPhilly interim editor Tom Ferrick was inserted into this story following an interview Thursday.
The civic-minded data and app resource website, which has become the bedrock of the local civic hacking movement, brought about months of behind-the-scenes debate before launching in spring 2011 during the inaugural Philly Tech Week: who was the right owner?

Just two years later, those closest to OpenDataPhilly are worried they might be back to the beginning and scrambling to find possible alternatives. That’s because the local journalism startup AxisPhilly, which took control of the data portal in large part because the William Penn Foundation funded both, is in turmoil.

Amid all of this, which is mostly just small talk fodder for local news insiders hanging at the Pen and Pencil Club, there has been little attention paid to what might be the strongest asset AxisPhilly ever had: the keys to the country’s largest local public data portal built and owned outside of city or regional governments.


[Update] AxisPhilly interim editor Tom Ferrick, a Pulitzer Prize winner and a widely respected longtime Inquirer columnist, said OpenDataPhilly has a home with Axis and that curation of the data catalog is being transition to a new staff member. But Ferrick is not the likely longterm leader of Axis and the quick departure of a three-person data journalism team won’t likely be replaced so easily.

For those who championed a community style ownership of the data catalog, this should be alarming.

There was much discussion and debate about who should own the effort, which was built by Callowhill-based mapping company Azavea following strategy in late 2010 around the then new OpenAccessPhilly public-private stakeholders group. Azavea founder Robert Cheetham knew and said often that his organization didn’t fit as owner — he ran a for-profit geomapping software company.

Likewise, a collection of nonprofits were discussed as possible owners, but most lacked the institutional know-how, and while the relevance between data and journalism was clear, news outlets, including Technically Philly, were for-profits and competitive by nature.

Though it didn’t have a name yet, AxisPhilly seemed to represent natural synergy, as the foundation was simultaneously funding the two launches and Axis had a journalism, community and nonprofit mission. But two years later, Axis has failed to meet expectations.

Meanwhile, the City of Philadelphia, with leadership that has swarmed to open data in recent years, has launched its PHLAPI, a repository of developer-focused open data offerings, led by Headd, who is now the city’s respected Chief Data Officer.

From Mayor Nutter’s Open Data Executive Order, the administration has a pledge left on the table to create a wider data resource. Could it now be the sensible, long-term owner of OpenDataPhilly, considering every other big city’s data portal is government operated?

Even Headd, a rather loyal, enthusiastic civil servant, questions whether that’s the right move.

“Philadelphia is the only big city in the country that does not unilaterally control the official data portal for municipal government data,” said Headd in an email following a conversation this weekend. “I think that is really special, and its one of the reasons that our civic hacking culture is so strong in Philly.”

Take for example the OpenDataRace that launched in 2011 as a way to spread the word about OpenDataPhilly: it asked nonprofits to nominate data that would help their mission if they had access to it. Organized by Azavea, William Penn Foundation, NPower (now called TechImpact) and Technically Philly,  of the 20 most popular data requests under city control, 11 have since been released and two more are in the pipeline, according to an analysis Headd provided at the request of Technically Philly.

That kind of crowdsourced initiative might likely not garner support in City Hall. Remember why the city wasn’t directly asked about being an owner of OpenDataPhilly when it first launched:

  • inclusivity — OpenDataPhilly includes data from nonprofits and groups from throughout the region, a move that might not likely happen as fluidly if a city government was charged with its stewardship.
  • politics — OpenDataPhilly could house data that makes city officials look less than perfect, a move that might likely get squashed from cautious bureaucrats.
  • temperament — Mayor Nutter has added open data to his stump speech about transparency and innovation, but what happens when the priority wanes in the future?

So where could OpenDataPhilly live in the future?

  • AxisPhilly could push through its bewildering first year, find new leadership and focus and become the sensible owner it was planned to be.
  • The community could pull OpenDataPhilly even further down the organic path and follow the WeWorkinPhilly model, which requires a stable of contributors and voices but risks long-term decline.
  • The Center for Public Interest Journalism, which is housed at Temple and was created to incubate Axis, could grow from the limited role it had and balance its institutional longevity with fresh energy. With the arrival of a new dean at Temple’s communications school, there is excitement about new thinking there.
  • The Committee of Seventy or other government oversight group — or a data-minded group like the Reinvestment Fund — could show it’s gotten more innovative than when first approached about ownership in late 2011.
  • A quasi governmental accountability organization, like the City Controller’s office, could justify its relative distance from the halls of power were a natural incubator for the project.

There is good and bad about any of these options. Most directly, none of them have the kind of leader who could use OpenDataPhilly has a bully pulpit to keep growing and standardizing the civic hacking movement.

What about Azavea, the good government-minded software firm that built OpenDataPhilly to start? Cheetham, the Azavea founder, said he is “concerned” enough that he “would be willing to take on responsibility for maintaining the data portal again,” but maintains another longterm owner needs to be found.

The thread here seems to be that the city is the safest owner at present, but also certainly will limit the hope many have put into the open model that has been created. Until the messy situation that is AxisPhilly is resolved, the question remains open.

“I really hope that a framework for sustaining with direction and input from the data community can continue,” said Headd, the city’s chief data officer. “We’re working hard right now to make that happen.”

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