Residents of Chicago can track their city’s plows and pothole repairs in real time. In Seattle, 911 calls are quickly detailed online. New Yorkers can sift through city contracts with a simple mouse click.
Minneapolis has kept a tight grip on the information it collects even as cities across the country open up streams of public data to developers, journalists and the public. But this past November’s election has spurred calls at City Hall to liberate that data, from food inspections to landlord violations, so it can be analyzed and manipulated for the public good.
“I figured when I came to Minneapolis that I was going to find a liberal, open place — very progressive, etcetera,” Otto Doll, the city’s chief information officer, told a gathering of data enthusiasts last week. “And we are, in certain ways, but not with our data.”
The secretary of state’s office is also entering the fray, opening up public data sets in new formats for developers to experiment with at an event later this month. And at a developer-driven event last year, five strangers took six hours to create a mobile tool, now called OMGTransit.com, that makes it easier to track real-time bus and train arrivals.
Supporters of open data say it improves government accountability, empowers citizens and ultimately can save public dollars. But they often encounter resistance from government officials, who are reluctant to release it to the masses.
“The real end is making new tools or new analyses for the local community or the city or the government,” said Bill Bushey, an organizer for Open Twin Cities. Minnesota’s open records law already defines what data is public, but open data advocates say it should be in an easily analyzed format — for instance, spreadsheets rather than PDFs.
Doll is following a City Council direction to create an open data policy for the city that also likely will address ways to protect individual privacy. Those who attended Doll’s gathering said they were interested in data sets relating to crime, business licenses, housing inspections, city spending and 311 calls, non-emergency contacts with City Hall.
Among them was Tony Webster, a developer who used an open records request to create a searchable database of city restaurant health code violations spanning two years. He speculates that Minneapolis is one of a few major cities without one. Webster also used Chicago’s towing data to create an app that tells drivers if their cars have been towed. But he has encountered major obstacles trying to obtain simple housing information — or any real-time data sets — from Minneapolis.
“Making that information more easily accessible would only further the goals of the city by ensuring those who can advocate, report on, or research urban problems have the data in hand,” Webster wrote in an e-mail.
New Council Member Andrew Johnson, the body’s most vocal open data advocate, knows that frustration all too well. A former systems engineer at Target, Johnson was part of a team that offered to help Minneapolis police analyze their public crime data. They needed it in a raw format, rather than maps and reports.
“It was like pulling teeth,” Johnson said. “And ultimately we ended up giving up because it was so hard working with the department at the time. Because they wanted to hold that data so close to the vest.”
Opening more city data will rely partly on the buy-in of city department heads.
The city’s regulatory services chief, Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde, said she is eager to improve public access to the city’s housing data, including adding more functionality to the city’s property lookup site.
Public works staffers are starting to use technology that tracks plows as they complete routes, but they have no timeline for a public rollout. Transportation Maintenance Director Mike Kennedy said if someone eventually transformed it into an app that tells people if they are legally parked, he would be supportive. “We know that that’s where it’s going and I’d love to have that myself,” Kennedy said.
Chicago and New York City provide citizens with checkbook-level spending information online, while Minneapolis’ spending transparency garnered a D- from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group last year. Minneapolis’ chief financial officer, Kevin Carpenter, said providing that level of detail online would present many complications, such as how debt payments and pass-through funds from other governments are classified.
The city already uses data in innovative ways internally with the help of IBM, which has helped create a so-called intelligent operations platform that can visualize events or identify trends by drawing on many disparate data sets. That tool is not available to the public.
‘Stuff you can’t even imagine’
At a collaborative workspace in Uptown later this month, developers will dig into a range of public data on elections and business filings that Secretary of State Mark Ritchie is releasing in new formats. In an online message board, “Capitol Code” participants already have suggested creating a directory of Minnesota manufacturers, or a tool to easily report and look up fraudulent solicitations.
“When you ask out loud to the citizens, ‘Hey, what are your ideas?’ and then you bring in data from a number of different places, the real objective is the stuff that you can’t even imagine,” Ritchie said.
“Really what this is doing is it’s transforming the way in which a government performs,” says Ian Kalin, open data manager for Socrata, a Seattle-based company that works with governments across the country to open data sets and store them online. He estimates that more than 100 governments in the U.S. have launched open data initiatives, mostly in the past five years.
Socrata works with Chicago, which has released nearly 1,000 data sets. Developers there have created apps that allow the public to dig into detailed crime statistics, research the most active lobbyists, locate vacant buildings and track city legislation. Other data help researchers evaluate after-school programs or track health trends across the city, said developer Derek Eder, who started a business from crunching public data.
“Who in the city of Chicago would have ever thought that you could use the data that way?” Eder said. “But the fact that it was released, and that it’s free for people to use, makes it all the more easy for people to take the data and then do something really fascinating with it.”