Software Development

Cypher Philly, a project born from a meetup, wants to unlock the power of open data

Cofounder Jess Mason is trying to make a passion project his full-time job.

Jess Mason, of Cypher Philly, pitches the project at Klein Camp 2018. (Photo courtesy of Philly GraphDB)’s Editorial Calendar explores a different topic each month. The November 2018 topic is Open Data. These stories highlight civic tech efforts across’s five markets.

For Cypher Philly founder Jess Mason, the copious amounts of open data produced every year by OpenDataPhilly needed another layer that could maximize their potential impact.

It’s why he set out — alongside cofounder Jason Cox and about 40 volunteers — to build an application that can connect the dots between data sets meant for transparency and higher government efficiency.

We asked him to explain how it works and he gave us the elevator pitch.

“It’s an open source web application project designed to empower citizens, journalists, data scientists, coders and creatives with the ability to harness open data for civic good,” Mason reads from a doc on his phone. “Our goal is to simplify the process of telling data-driven stories using open public data to bring about actionable change, while also informing citizens and governments alike.”

Cypher Philly, a project born from the Philly GraphDB meetup organized by Mason and Cox, was also a project of Code for Philly’s Civic Engagement Launchpad. Over the past year or so, the volunteer effort has been geared at getting a viable prototype up and running. Some 500 development hours have gone into its creation.

The hope is that media outlets, data scientists and organizations can leverage the application, which uses graph database management system Neo4j, to understand the data and find ways to make it actionable.

“The whole point of the project is making a difference for the city and the people who live here,” said Mason. “We want to find ways to improve the interaction between city data and its citizens.”

(Full disclosure, will be exploring opportunities to pilot the platform on future reporting projects.)

The next step is finding a way to make Cypher Philly a sustainable project. Mason said the group is going after a series of grants, and organizations like Linode, Azavea, Indy Hall and Neo4j have sponsored the project in various ways, from offering space for events or access to digital tools and services. The hope is to have enough resources to give the project launch a clearer timeline.

“We already have day jobs,” said Mason, who runs a dev shop called Untitled Folder alongside Cox. “But this is starting to become our day job.”

Projects: Open Data Month 2018

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