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Why Philadelphia’s first Chief Data Officer quit

A conflict over property-tax data nudged Mark Headd out of city government. What should cities and open gov advocates learn from it? A Philly exclusive.

Mark Headd. (Photo by Flickr user Interop Events, used under a Creative Commons license)
It felt like he had hit a wall.

After a year-and-a-half, Mark Headd, the city’s first Chief Data Officer, believed it was no longer possible for him to carry out the Mayor’s open data policy, he told Philly.

During his tenure, the city had released more than 50 datasets, including Part I crime data, police complaint data and property reassessment data. But, according to Headd, when he tried to push the open data needle a little bit further and get one city agency to share an important dataset with other agencies, he came up empty. He quit last April.

That dataset in question was one on property-tax balances, controlled by the Revenue Department.

It’s an especially important dataset, given Philadelphia’s longstanding problems with tax delinquency and collection. Headd and his team spent months last year building an API, or a real-time feed, of the property-tax data. But Headd couldn’t get buy-in from the Revenue Department and its commissioner, Clarena Tolson. To this day, it’s not clear that anyone is using the API: it has not been released to the public or to any city departments.

In an attempt to show city officials the importance of releasing the property-tax balance API, Headd and his team conducted an internal analysis of how many tax delinquents had received licenses and permits. They found that the city had issued permits and licenses to almost 6,000 properties that owed more than $48 million in back taxes as of December 2013. (Tolson takes issue with this analysis because some tax delinquents are actually tax compliant — if, for example, they are on a payment plan or have declared bankruptcy.)

Headd’s point: If the Revenue Department would green-light the property-tax balance API, Licenses & Inspections could use it to find out, in real time, if an applicant was tax delinquent.

Headd published the data late last month, after referencing it in his talk at the Transparency Camp conference near Washington, D.C.

See the data

It did not convince the city’s Tolson, who admitted that, before 2014, Philadelphia had a less-than-effective way of making sure those applying for licenses were not tax delinquent. That has since changed, Tolson told Philly. This January, the city launched an online clearance tool for all license and permit applicants.

Anyone who applies for a license or permit has to get a tax clearance through the website, print it out and turn it in with their application.

It’s working, Tolson says.

Since the tool’s launch, the city has collected $900,000 in taxes that can be directly linked to this new clearance system. Other city departments, like Procurement, Human Resources and the Zoning Board of Adjustment, also use the new tool, according to Tolson.

Tolson says privacy concerns are her main beef with the proposed real-time feed, which isn’t unfounded (though anyone can look up an address and see how much taxes a property owner owes on the city’s Revenue site).

The new clearance system is “superior” to a property-tax balance API, Tolson said.

Headd disagrees.

“A self-certifying website is a 20th century answer to the problem of tax deadbeats,” he wrote in an email. “An open data API is a 21st century answer to the problem. And that was my single biggest frustration during my time at the city — we were constantly using 20th century answers to problems that required a 21st century solution.”

The struggle over the city’s property-tax balance data API was one reason Headd left, he said. Headd believed that part of his job was to transform the way government worked with open data, and he felt that this hurdle represented a larger cultural block within the Nutter administration.

He wrote:

“Philadelphia is at a juncture where it is ready to take the next step in its open data evolution. To start sharing data across departments (hell, even across governments) and start identifying new ways of doing things — ways that are more efficient and more effective. I tried very hard to move us past this juncture and onto the next steps. I was not able to do so, and it became clear that I was never going to be able to do so.”

Adel Ebeid, the city’s Chief Innovation Officer, refused to comment on the record for this story, as did several other former and current city employees who also worked with Headd.

Companies: City of Philadelphia / Licenses and Inspections / Office of Innovation and Technology / Revenue Department
People: Mark Headd

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