Evolution of an Open Data Program

The first great challenge for any municipal data program is deciding what data to release.

The second great challenge for municipalities that embark on open data programs can be summed up in how they react to applications that get built with their data. This is particularly true if the apps that are built have not been fully considered by the municipality releasing the data.

Because of some work done by smart, passionate civic developers in Baltimore, this second challenge now confronts officials in Charm City:

“Whether web developers can use the city data to make applications that bring in revenue is still unknown. Baltimore officials released the data without providing terms of service to guide developers seeking to create applications for for-profit ventures.”

“Baltimore’s law department is crafting guidelines for how developers could use the data in such ventures,” said Rico Singleton, Baltimore’s chief information officer.

How Baltimore crafts the terms of service for their open data sets will dictate, to a large extent, how successful the program will ultimately be. Will there be more apps like SpotAgent? We’ll have to wait and see. I, for one, hope so.

It’s not surprising that governments struggle with this important milestone in the evolution of an open data program.

To a large extent, releasing open data means that governments abdicate control. There are typically some limitations on what developers can do with government data, but for the most part the creativity and personal ambitions of external developers are the engine that drives open data programs.

It can be a big leap for governments to give up this control, something that not all of them fully consider before the first data sets are released.

Here’s hoping that Baltimore officials take an approach that encourags the kind of app development that has resulted in SpotAgent. It would be great to see more of this.

Witnessing the CfA Effect in Philadelphia

Yesterday in Philadelphia, at the offices of Azavea (a Philly-based geographic data and civic apps company), 7 Code for America fellows sponsored what was the last in a month-long series of workshops/gatherings/hackathons.
City of Philadelphia
Yesterday’s event was promoted as a Data Camp – a one day sprint meant to identify useful sources of information about Philadelphia, and to build civic applications and mashups using that data. The idea was to have “demoable” projects by the end of the day.

I had the pleasure of attending this event yesterday, and was impressed by what I saw. I’m referring not only to the projects that were worked on (which were cool), or the excitement visible on the faces of everyone there – from independent hackers, to Azavea employees to city officials (there were several in attendance throughout the day). That was cool too.

What I was most impressed with was the ability of this event to highlight to those that were there what is truly possible when government data is open to and usable by developers. It provided an object lesson for all those there in the true potential of civic hacking.

I spoke with a number of people after the event, when the demos for all of the projects were complete, and the unanimous sentiment was – “Wow, all this got done in one day?”

The idea of releasing open government data has been gaining momentum in Philadelphia for a while now, principally under the auspices of the Digital Philadelphia initiative.

But yesterday’s event – in my opinion, as someone from outside of Philadelphia looking in – seemed to crystalize the benefits of releasing open data for many people there. They had already been supportive of releasing open government data in principle, and most had worked toward achieving this end. But to actually see apps getting built with open data really made the lightbulbs go off.

Having the Code for America fellows in Philadelphia, and having them essentially kick start civic coding using city data, has accelerated the awareness of what is possible. I think people would have achieved the awareness that was realized yesterday eventually, but the CfA fellows got people there sooner.

I call it “the CfA Effect.” It was pretty cool to see first hand.

Looking forward to more cool stuff from this gifted and dedicated group of young people.

eComm 2010: San Francisco

Next week, an event is being held in San Francisco to discuss the future of communications. The Emerging Communications Conference & Awards (eComm) will bring together top executives from communications companies, innovators, academics, hackers and others to discuss “what’s next?” in telecom, mobile and Internet communications.

I’m thrilled and honored to be speaking at this event – I’ll be talking about how the Open Data and Gov 2.0 movements are changing the way that people communicate with their governments. But I’m even more thrilled to be an attendee at this event.

The speakers list is like a who’s who of the telecom world, and I’m looking forward to hearing many of the presentations. (After eComm Europe in Amsterdam last year, I read some of the presentations that were given and was mightily impressed with their quality and focus.)

If you’re in the San Francisco area, or are someone who is passionate about the changing landscape of communication technology, this is an event you should attend.

Hope to see you there.

Philly IT Chief Talks Vision / Savings

Government Technology has an interesting piece with City of Philadelphia CIO Allen Frank.

Frank lays out his vision for the City of Philadelphia, and also speaks in detail about how it will be funded – his ambitious plan depends almost entirely on savings that will teased out of existing IT operations:

The biggest piece of low-hanging fruit, in terms of cost savings is consolidation, of course. ‘We are consolidating IT in a very careful way, but it will drive down costs immediately,’ Frank explained. With almost 750 servers in nearly 20 data centers, Frank figures he can wring major efficiencies out of the status quo. Some of the so-called data centers reside in departments with as few as five servers, but have their own IT staff, including a server administrator. ‘In a best-practice scenario, I should be able to manage 100 servers with just one guy,’ he said.

I was also impressed to hear Frank talk about the potential of virtualization technologies for public sector entities like Philadelphia (this is something I’ve talked about before on this blog):

In addition, Frank wants to ramp up the use of virtualization, which will let the city get more use out of the servers it keeps and run multiple applications from different departments. The days are over when each city department needs to have its own servers housed in its own building.

I couldn’t agree more. Here’s hoping that more governments take the same approach to identifying savings in their existing IT infrastructures, and reinvest the savings in products and practices that will improve service delivery.

Joining a New Team

People that know me (and probably some that don’t) know that I’m passionate about telephony systems and applications, particularly in how they are used by governments. As the most ubiquitous communications device in the world, the ordinary telephone is one of the most important channels that governments have access to for communicating with and providing services to citizens and taxpayers.

For the past few years, I’ve been working as a consultant to a company called Tele-Works whose core business is helping governments utilize telephony applications to efficiently provide services and information to their citizens. Tele-Works is packed to the brim with smart, passionate people who have the same commitment I do to helping governments successfully utilize telephony applications to improve service delivery. There is a palpable sense within the company for the desire to develop well built applications – applications that perform well, are easily maintained and provide real value for customers. It’s a great place to work, full of enthusiastic and skilled developers committed to building standards-based telephony applications that utilize the latest technologies.

So I’m happy to say that I will now be going legit – joining Tele-Works as a full time employee, effective today!

I’ll still be blogging and Tweeting about things that interest me, and these musings will continue to reflect only my views and opinions. But I’m going to doing these things with a renewed focus on what really excites me – telephone systems and applications, VoIP, emerging standards, new technologies for building IVR applications: anything and everything phone-related!

I’m excited about joining a great company like Tele-Works, and to have a renewed focus on the things I really enjoy working with.