[UPDATED] Friday Q&A: Robert Cheetham, President and CEO of Avencia - Technical.ly Philly

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Oct. 30, 2009 5:33 pm

[UPDATED] Friday Q&A: Robert Cheetham, President and CEO of Avencia

Hear from the open data expert, GIS specialist and leader of Avencia, the Callowhill-based mapping company.
Cheetham asked to clarify several statements. Substantial edits are demarcated with cross-out text.

Robert Cheetham can’t quite speak Japanese anymore.

In the early 1990s, the founder and CEO of Callowhill-based geographic analysis and software development firm Avencia worked for three years as an international relations coordinator for a small municipality an hour train ride from Kyoto. It was a chance to return to the land of the rising sun after studying there during his undergraduate days at the University of Michigan in his home state.

He returned back to the United States for an Ivy League education, at the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of design. Unsure of his future in landscape architecture, his path led him to a class in geographic information systems, which gifted him a career in chasing data.

robert_cheetham_photoIn 1997, fresh out of Penn, he and another landscape architecture graduate took the natural first step. They were asked to find a way to make sense of the crowd of data the Philadelphia Police Department was collecting.

“For about six months, we were tossed in a room and told to do whatever we wanted with the data so long as it came back looking interesting and allowed conclusions to be made,” Cheetham, 41, says now to Technically Philly.

By spring 1998, a new police commissioner came to town, John Timoney, high on the CompStat movement of a far wonk-ier New York City police department.

“He found our unit, and we were set,” Cheetham says. He helped lay the foundation of the city police department’s data analysis, crime-mapping and internal projection systems. By 2001, after a stop in what is now the city’s division of technology, Cheetham launched Avencia.

After the jump, we talk with Cheetham about the state of municipal government data, the company’s 10 percent time, and why they decided to base operations in Callowhill over the ‘burbs.
Edited for length and clarity.

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Where has the municipal data movement come from and where is it going?

I think the trend has been there for a long time, though perhaps it has been accelerated in the last few years. The cost of doing interesting things with data has dropped considerably, which may be part of the change.

In the mid to late 1990s, some police departments were part of this movement around community policing, not in Philly but other places. This led to a desire of sharing police department data with the public, first in Chicago, San Diego and many smaller towns and then elsewhere.

This I think transformed and went along to begin a movement of increased attention to performance management of municipal departments through data. This happened in New York and Philadelphia as early as 1997. This began in Baltimore as CitiStat and has since spread to other cities, like PhillyStat in Philadelphia. Data-driven performance management created an increased demand of transparency in government operations.

The CitiStat and similar programs really raised the bar in terms of how data should be available. Those data sets are large, but they tend to be easier to manage now, too. They don’t scare us anymore.� Two million records can be put together and organized in a way like never before because of these tools that are now available.

What’s changed in the last few years is a number of things. Google Maps, Bing Maps and similar programs acted as a shot in the arm to make things available in a really specific way and address geocoding. Address geocoding refers to the process of transforming a single address into a longitude and latitude. The cost is getting low enough to round down to zero, making the transformation of a list of addresses into a map far easier.

Will that movement continue?

The Obama administration, with what’s being called its open government, is helpful in continuing this, but many governments have been giving it away for decades. It’s just now we have to tools to do something with it.

Still, things can come and interrupt it, like 9/11. That closed the door on many data sets, some temporarily but many permanent. You can’t, say, walk into the water department today and ask for information on where all their water lines are… But we’re still moving in the general direction of greater transparency and more open access to government data. Pennsylvania’s open records law that went into effect last January really opens the gates, more than I think many realize yet.

What is Avencia’s role in all of this?

cheetham-avencia_smallGovernment can keep making data more available to the public, but simply making data feeds public is going to prove problematic. Making data available doesn’t mean you’ve made it useful or easy to interpret. We can get swamped by the avalanche of data, and sometimes without being synthesized that data can be used to make some false or detrimental conclusions.

That’s where I think Avencia fits in, processing the data in someway to make it more useful.

How do you make money?

Our revenue producing business is to build custom software to perform geographic analysis for folks who want a certain question answered, and secondly, we develop projects that can be replicated and sold nationwide. So something like PhillyHistory.org [mapping historical photographs] is now a software solution that can be used by special collections and museums anywhere.

Our work ranges from crime data mining to political advocacy to historical collections, we’ve done that, geography, data and the web being the common thread.

Your company does pro bono work, too. Why?

We don’t advertise. We build our business largely based on relationships. In general people come to us. We have no sales team. People are usually coming to us to solve a problem. So how do we communicate that? It’s a marketing question, and how to extend our network and thirdly how to develop our tools and skills.

We’ve found that we can virtually hang a sign out there, in Philly and nationally, by, one at a time, doing pro-bono work for organizations that could probably never hire us anyway.

What’s an example?

Our current project is with Nature Conservancy. They’ve done climate-change modeling with universities, and everyone wanted to look at sea level change. So, to create spatial models that will look at sea level rise, they are collecting information. Our work with them will be to create a Web site that will enable the public to display the impact of sea level rise based on various atmospheric carbon levels. Out of this experience, this may generate ten ideas on how to improve it. They will then take that concept to potential funders and try to extend it.

Below watch Cheetham present at Ignite Philly in June 2008.

Tell us about Avencia’s 10 percent time.

Ten percent time is there for our technical staff, to give them one day every couple weeks to dig in on something they’re interesting in that pushes their skills forward. Because their client work might be interesting, but not fascinating or it might be fascinating but not pushing their skills.

So after submitting a written proposal with clear deliverables, they get the time to work on a project of their choosing… maybe pro-bono work or something open-source or something else that fits with our mission and can challenge them.

It has PR value and keeps folks motivated, but it also can lead to some real neat stuff. Like Aaron [Ogles]’s WalkShed project. Will business arise directly out of it? Maybe, but now Aaron can go talk about it and feed a curiosity.

Also, once a quarter, we have an R&D social, which is a chance to do a show and tell and get feedback from folks on those projects.

Why is Avencia in Callowhill and not a leafy suburb?

Yes, we’d save tax money. I’ve testified at council about what this city’s tax structure does to businesses, but I love this city. My wife is from Paris and loves this historic fabric. We don’t own a car, so we’re wealthier because of that. I bicycle and my wife walks everywhere. We have a modest rowhouse, and it’s very pragmatic. We are close to transit and a 10 minute walk to most of our clients. There are lots of wonderful things about basing your company actually inside Philadelphia.

Yes, the tax burden is real, but we save lots of money as individuals, on our house, on not owning a car, on having such great proximity to so many cultural elements and restaurants. It’s a great environment, and we couldn’t be happier anywhere else,

Every Friday, Technically Philly brings you an interview with a leader or innovator in Philadelphia�s technology community. See others here.

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