(Photo by Flickr user justgrimes, used under a Creative Commons license)
A mere six months ago, civic tech was nearly nonexistent in Delaware. Open data was almost a foreign concept — nor was it sexy, let alone being utilized.
Then, this past May, a meetup sparked a dialogue. That initial dialogue led to continued conversation, eventually evolving into a real, organized community with real objectives. Now, that community is ready to take action.
“There is no open data community in Delaware, that’s why we’re starting this,” said 1313’s Ryan Harrington, a co-organizer of the Meetup. “Setting the groundwork and foundation is really important for this. This first meetup will be less focused on actually doing things and a lot more focused on trying to build community. This is a place you should be learning.”
It’s a start, and a much-needed one, at that. As it stands, Delaware’s published datasets are sloppy, at best.
“They’re disparate, they’re not well maintained, they’re not easily readable,” said David Ginzberg, an Open Data Delaware co-organizer and instructor at Zip Code Wilmington. “Other data is not readily available and not collected in a single place. That’s part of the goal — to foster and provide a forum where people can learn how to improve the open data ecosystem in the whole state of Delaware.”
Delaware needs a real community to push its state and local governments towards real action and delivery. We can only write so much about how eager the state’s public servants are to take advantage of open data energy — people like Delaware’s CIO James Collins, who told us he sees open data as an “opportunity” for Delaware, or Wilmington’s “tech councilman” Darius Brown, who has repeatedly echoed the same intent on a local level.
“We can make Wilmington a more responsive City by addressing pot holes, online permitting, mobile parking and other services by leveraging data,” Brown recently told us. “Data has successfully helped to drive the bottom line for private companies while the public sector is still defining where and how services can best be delivered.”
Brown added that he is “proud to lead the way” on municipal efforts to “adopt new efficiencies related to public safety, economic opportunity, and civic engagement” through open data.
Now, there is a community ready to hold public servants championing open data opportunities accountable for touting its flag. But that entails cost — and not all public officials nor their constituents are quite ready to invest in platforms for organizing and publishing civic data. The need has to be there first — which means Open Data Delaware needs to grow and produce before Delaware loosens the grip on its coinpurse.
“There’s a cost-saving and time-saving aspect to this when done right,” said Ginzberg, who has been involved in tech scenes in both Chicago, Ill., and D.C. — two great models for Open Data Delaware. “There’s an overhead cost, but it’s something stakeholders in local and state government need to understand. It’s worth it in the long term.”
It’s most definitely been worth it elsewhere. Just ask Mark Headd, who was the director of Delaware’s Government Information Center, then Philadelphia’s first Chief Data Officer before moving on to become a Development Evangelist at government software company Accela, Inc., where he works from upstate New York.
“Everything started out with this idea of transparency and governments being more forthcoming with data,” said Headd. “It was this idea of being more open so people could see what was happening and decisions that were being made.”
In many ways said Headd, it’s still that. But the past few years have brought about a shift in thinking.
Not only is a commitment to open data a plus in the transparency column, but there are actually operational benefits that can be realized for people in government. As more and more people have access to an increasingly rich and powerful collection of tools for working with data, everyone is catching the bug.
“The tools we have to produce the data, to crunch data, to use sophisticated data analysis, to build online maps — they’re everywhere now. They’re cheap they’re powerful, they’re easy to use, and there’s more of them every day,” said Headd. “I think that’s a really big driver behind all of this. If you have all these great tools for working with data and they’re increasingly cheap and powerful, there’s going to be a big demand for data. People want to do things with these tools.”
The data just needs to be open first. For Delaware, that should be step one. And with public servants who are very openly enthused by the concept of open data and the opportunity to deliver, it should be an easy step one — right?
Almost. It’s still a challenge, said Headd, who knows from firsthand experience.
Generally, he said, people who work in government have worked in government for a long time. Open data, on the other hand, is a concept that we’ve only seen develop over the past five to seven years. But it’s a service — and regardless of age or tenure, that’s something all public servants should be familiar with.
“Governments are producers of things that allow people to get services,” said Headd. “It’s the notion of ‘government as a platform,’ the whole idea that instead of governments being the ones that provide the end-to-end transaction, you have intermediate applications or solutions that can help you do those things.”
Data doesn’t always tell a flattering story about government performance, but a government willing to make a real commitment to its people by enabling them to make their own evaluations of its performance is what Headd said is the true mark of an open and ethical government. Instead of the state issuing an annual report highlighting progress on key objectives, Headd said a government that truly embraces open data is one that will give people the ability to make those evaluations on their own.
Now, with a community of people with a mission to actively nudge their government for more datasets, Delaware’s state and local governments might not have any other choice but to actually embrace open data.
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