Tommy Jones, the City of Philadelphia interim CTO, is good with details.
When Technically Philly asks about releasing data, instead of big vision, the former Washington D.C. deputy CTO gets right to the point.
“In D.C., we put up 425 data sets from crime to procurement to health to insurance and any other topic. I don’t lay claim to starting it, but I do lay claim to growing it a lot,” Jones says. “But here, in Philly, well, we’re in the infancy.”
While the technology community’s interest is high and a private partnership to catalog what city data is already available is underway, Jones is reliably focused on the details to make that happen.
“The city doesn’t have the money to have the data servers to host a lot of what we did in D.C., and I have real concerns about our staff capacity to work with other agencies to do this right,” he says.
Jones says he has had conversations with Microsoft, Open311.org and other large companies that could potentially host city data, information and tools securely, legally and reliably for free or nominal costs, but they are on-going, simultaneous with his basic priorities for the year and foundational goals for his new IT funding.
So, Technically Philly asks Jones, what are the real, actionable steps to getting the city to release new data?
- “Step one is finding a place to put it, and we think we’ve identified a couple options. We just don”t think it will be on our servers because we don’t think we have the capacity,” he says.
- “Step number two is culturally to get the other organizations in the city comfortable that the data being put up is both real and it’s legally OK. It is a cultural issue, not that people want to hide stuff, but everybody is nervous when you say you’re going to put something up because so many things can be misinterpreted,” he says.
- “The third step is really improving that work flow to get agencies doing it the same way and the right way,” he says. “One of the things, one of the big struggles is that everyone wants raw data but you don’t want raw, raw data because most systems mean nothing if you don’t know how to combine three sets of data. [Jones referenced an experience in d.c. in trying to take various homeless resident counts that create muddled pictures]. There’s a fine line between what raw data really means for something like procurement than that sort of data we had in the D.C. example. It’s more simple. Just give me the contract you put out, how much you spent and who you spent it with. You don’t need any combinations but in other things you do, and we need to have that conversation.
Technically Philly also asked Jones about moving forward with releasing new data sets, if some city agencies are so behind.
“The reality is that I cannot wait for perfect systems to push data out. If my objective is to push data out to the public and be transparent, I cannot wait for perfect systems… I can’t wait for perfect systems, so I’m trying to use the systems I have now. But because of the state we’re in, I have to be super sensitive at the rate we go because I have to know the data is real. One of the things I know some of the [city agencies] are very concerned about is that if we’re publishing something, that it’s real. Procurement is an easy one, you spend it or you didn’t spend it, but there are doubts elsewhere.”
Jones says there are other related initiatives that don’t fit into the standard data set release conversation.
“We are working very hard at bringing other systems online, like the whole document management area,” he says. “It’s actually a little scary, the crucial, critical, very old documents that we only have on paper.”
Like historical records, files and collections from before the second-half of the 20th century, he said.
“We have a two prong system that we’re doing. One is taking what we already have in boxes and just scanning and indexing and that good stuff, but we’re also working on things like the electronic case management system where we are trying to see how we can work on capturing the image into the work flow. But we’re creating new systems, and that can be the frustrating part of all of this in the government, for me or for any citizen.”
It all goes back to his interest in focusing in on the details, the biggest problems first, he says.
“Philly is taking on so many challenges at once because we have no choice, so the individual progress seems very slow, and I don’t blame [residents] for being frustrated,” he says. “I’m frustrated, but I’m closer to it so I understand why.”-30-
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