Open Data in Philadelphia Takes Another Step Forward

Open Data in Philadelphia Takes Another Step Forward

Last week we announced that Azavea would represent Philadelphia as a new node in a global network started by the Open Data Institute (ODI).  This is the second group of ODI nodes (the first wave was in October), and Philadelphia joined Seoul, Osaka, Sheffield and Hawaii as new “regional” nodes.  There’s more information about this announcement  in the ODI press release, but I wanted to jot down a few notes about what this means for Philadelphia, Azavea and open data.

Let me start by saying that the recent resurgence in popularity for open data is a good thing in a lot of respects.  While open data releases by government agencies have received most of the attention in recent years, there have been parallel, and, I believe, equally important, growth in open access to scientific papers and experimental data, greater transparency from some corporations, and increased pressure for access to the personal data held by corporations.  And these trends fit hand-in-glove with the longer-term increase in the availability of open source software.  I believe these are all important changes and represent some significant momentum.  Still, I think the concept of “open data” has been a relatively fuzzy and feel-good concept generally associated with government transparency and civics lessons.  The fuzziness may have been useful at first, but if the open data movement is going to become sustainable, I believe it’s going to need more rigor and structure, and it’s going to need to move beyond government transparency.   The Open Data Institute is a committed and well-funded organization that is attempting to bring additional rigor to the open data world, and that’s why Azavea has signed up to help cultivate an open data culture.  What is ODI doing to support this?

Case Studies:  ODI has embarked on several initiatives that I think are important.  First, they are creating case studies and quantitative measurement of the positive impact of open data, particularly as the data is used to save money or grow businesses.  When the going get’s tough, the Mayoral Executive Order has lost its initial shine, and organizations are starting to dig in their heels, the case for releasing more data has got to move from jawboning and moral suasion to more pragmatic arguments.  This is going to require stories of how new businesses have been started and jobs created; how lives are improved; and how scarce funds are saved as a result of open data.

Certificates:  ODI has also developed and is promoting the use of Open Data Certificates.  The certificates are a “badge” that links to a standardized description of a data set.  This metadata describes things like the format, how often it’s updated and how it was created.  There are several levels of certificates:  Raw, Pilot, Standard and Expert.  The certificate provides data users with assurance that the data has been vetted, that the publisher updates it regularly, that it has a license, and respects privacy.  It remains to be seen if these certificates will take off, but I see them as a sort of badging system, akin to that being promoted by the Mozilla Open Badges project.

Education: There are many organizations that would like to publish their data but don’t know how.  To address this, ODI is creating educational materials to support open data training, classes and guides.  These materials will be made available globally

Culture:  Open data is engendering cultural changes that I expect will play out in important ways over the next several years.  New cultural practices, such as hackathons, are being joined by app and data challenges.  New companies, such as Kaggle and ChallengePost, are appearing to bring together communities of talent with problems that need to be solved.  ODI talks about “data as culture” and they are working to promote this.

Startups:  Finally, ODI is cultivating new businesses by incubating them in its own headquarters.  When I visited the London office in November, I walked out of the elevator into a cluster of desks for OpenCorporates, a startup developing a global database of information about corporations.  They’ve already got 62 million records and the database is growing daily.  And this isn’t just an index of company records, they connect them into related entities, enabling visualization of complex corporate structures.


What’s in it for Philadelphia?

Philadelphia has become an important center for open data, civic hacking and the attendant innovation.  We want to both see this type of activity continue and leverage the ODI resources to promote it.  We will be placing new emphasis on open data in our blogs, webinars and other publications.  We will be encouraging both use and publication of data through our Summer of Maps program.  And we will continue our participation in and support of hackathons, CodeForPhilly, and other civic technology activities.


What’s in it for Azavea?

Azavea has both relied upon and contributed to the open data community for many years. As the original developers of the data portal, becoming an ODI node is a way for us to both celebrate the growing availability of open data in the Philadelphia region and to engage in activities that will promote advancement of open data.  I believe that open data is important not only for government transparency but also for high quality academic research, corporate accountability, and growth of new businesses.  Azavea is working with ODI because we believe it will be an effective way to advance all of these outcomes.  I hope you’ll join us to help grow the open data ecosystem.