Making open data better

Some positive news.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Houston leaders in the last year or so have cheered the promise of “civic hacking,” pushing to make the mountains of data the city collects accessible to tech enthusiasts capable of building programs to help citizens better understand and interact with their government.

Two “hackathons” and a few dozen “app” ideas later, however, the city still requires formal public information requests to release many popular records and has no set processes to decide which data can be freely released or how to keep it up-to-date.

Officials and local programmers alike hope a new “Open Data Policy,” enacted as an administrative procedure by Mayor Annise Parker late last month, will change that. The policy mandates citywide cooperation with a task force that will decide what to release and how to keep it up-to-date. The procedures also require all future city technology contracts to allow for the free release of records in a useful format, such as a spreadsheet rather than a PDF.

“Right now we have a coalition of the willing,” said city Finance Director Kelly Dowe. “We’re trying to create broad participation. It’s encouraging now that every department in the city had representation on the creation of this. What you see here is a level of commitment, by signing off on this, to work with the administration and put this data forward.”

It would be inexact, perhaps, to highlight this “coalition of the willing” or reveal the departments being territorial with their records; some collect more information than others, and some have more antiquated records systems than others.

Jeff Reichman, a principal at consulting firm January Advisors, said the quality and relevance of the datasets are what matter, not the volume. Still, gaps are noticeable: The city’s existing Open Data Portal, launched for the hackathons, shows the planning department boasts 48 datasets and the regulatory department 21, while the municipal courts and the city’s airport system each has posted one. The portal holds information on everything from code enforcement violations and taxis to alcohol permits and radioactive waste sites.

The new policy calls for an advisory board to be formed within 30 days and to have open data standards drafted within 90 days, guiding all city departments in complying with the directive. The task force, Dowe said, will start by identifying the information citizens are most interested in and how best to unleash it.

I’ve written about Hackathons before. There’s a lot of value in making city data available to app developers in a format they can use. For one example of the possibilities, consider this from San Antonio.

The City has paired up with a mobile application company to help drivers find and pay for downtown parking spots in San Antonio. On Oct. 23, Pango will release an app for San Antonio that enables drivers to find available parking before they reach their destination. Pango is considering the introduction a mobile payment option in the future.*

The city is sharing the data it collects from parking meters for use on the app, which updates every five minutes. That means every spot with a parking meter will be mapped out as available or not on the phone, potentially eliminating the sometimes fruitless, frenzied scramble to find a parking spot, clogging up streets.

Would you like to have something like that in Houston? With this Open Data policy, it could happen.

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