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No hacks these: Open Chattanooga turns data mining skills to good use.
Open Chattanooga began as a response to the tornados of 2010, but it’s maturing into something that looks more like an entire weather map’s worth of initiatives aimed at opening locked up government data for the benefit of citizens.
I sat down last week with web developer Dan Ryan and Jenny Park with the City of Chattanooga, two of the many people providing energy for this movement in Chattanooga.
Ryan, who has been involved since the beginning, says local open data advocates always had the aim of opening all government data, but started small. The idea of open data, he explains, is simply to view data created by governments as a resource that citizens and companies can find infinite uses for.
“Let’s open this up, make data available and see what people can do with it,” he says.
Early efforts made some of the challenges crystal clear. Advocates thought state restaurant health inspection data would be an easy win, but they started asking just after the state had stopped collecting that data. Then-Senator Andy Burke tried to help, but the only option was to pay a private company to work the data.
After the tornadoes of 2010, the Ochs Center reached out to Ryan and other civic-minded data nerds to help local governments, and the advocates for opening data wound up creating data. They created a Google Maps application and drove around the community dropping digital pins on the map for every downed tree and power line. The resulting map helped local governments plan their response and helped commuters plan their routes to work.
That was the beginning of Open Chattanooga. Over the last four years, a loose coalition of advocates got progressively more organized. Public events like Hackanooga in 2012 and Chattanooga’s participation in the 2013 National Day of Civic Hacking built momentum and drew more people. Tim Moreland, who came to work with the City, reached out to Code For America, one of the organizers of National Day of Civic Hacking, which led to the creation of a local Code For America “brigade” of volunteers and to Chattanooga having the opportunity to host Code For America fellows in 2014.
All this volunteer activity got more structured when Open Chattanooga worked with the Benwood Foundation to secure a Knight Foundation Community Information Challenge grant, which Benwood matched, to formalize Open Chattanooga as a collaboration of the City of Chattanooga, the volunteer Code For America brigade, and the Public Library. What was a loose group of volunteers and city employees who saw value in open data has become a formal effort supported by the mayor’s office to open all city data for public use.
Park and Moreland are on loan from the Regional Planning Agency to lead the effort in the mayor’s office. Jenny Park describes Open Chattanooga as a three-pronged effort.
“The city opens its data and makes internal reforms to make that the way they do business,” she says. “The public library provides an access point. They are creating an Open Data portal. Most of that data will be city data, but the library is able to facilitate additional data types [from nonprofits or private companies]. Also they are going to be helping with some training to the use of the portal.”
The brigade is focused on engaging the community with this soon-to-be-opened data, as well as with technology in general, including the recent creation of Chawiki, a Wikipedia-like website for user-created content about Chattanooga.
In addition to making government more transparent and giving the community access to data they paid for through taxes, open data can create significant economic development, explains Ryan. One example is how the United States opened weather forecast data 20 or 30 years ago, leading to the creation of a billion-dollar industry. In Europe, the same data is private, and the weather forecasting industry is much smaller, worth about 20 million dollars. Why?
“Because access to the data lets all these innovative things come out,” he says. “The open data policy the city is working on takes the city’s default position from ‘If you want information, come request it’ to ‘We’re just going to publish it, and it’s yours.’”
“Seeing this bill being written as open source code, literally...that’s cool,” adds Ryan, who’s not just being metaphorical. The city’s draft Open Data Policy has been posted for public comment on Github, a website used for posting open source software under development. It’s gotten a flood of response.
“People do comment and treat it like it’s open source code,” says Ryan.
“I’ve been surprised to discover how many people are interested in open data,” says Park. “It’s had a lot of activity.”
The city’s Open Data policy is open for comment until April 7 at github.com/cityofchattanooga. Open Chattanooga has open work sessions at 5:30 p.m. every first Tuesday at The 4th Floor and unstructured “office hours” every third Tuesday 1-2 p.m. at Enzo’s.