Those seeking information about the City of Brotherly Love are finding their lives much easier as of late.
Philadelphia has made a push in the past year to release more data to citizens on everything from crime to property history to school quality.
The effort began last April, when Mayor and 1979 Wharton graduate Michael Nutter signed an executive order calling for an Open Data policy, as well as for the creation of the chief data officer position.
People can find the open data information on the city of Philadelphia website.
“The information has relevance in everyday life,” Mark Headd, the city’s first CDO, said. “Government should make this data available.”
Many times when new data sets are released, however, the information is still quite raw and not very readable for the average citizen, according to AxisPhilly CEO Neil Budde.
One of his organization’s goals is to “make information more accessible to citizens.” In recent months, AxisPhilly — a nonprofit news and information organization, according to its website — has released numerous tools to make data easier to find, including interactive crime maps and a chart showing city political lobbying statistics.
Headd said Philadelphia has looked to other cities, like New York and Chicago, for inspiration as to how to best make data more transparent to citizens. According to Headd, representatives of major cities meet regularly to “trade ideas and lessons learned.”
Tim Wisniewski, who was appointed the city’s Director of Civic Technology last month, says that one of the keys to government data transparency is creating “apps” to better show the data.
To build the apps, the government can either create them in-house, hire a local vendor to do it or “look to the local tech community,” Wisniewski said.
An example of the latter is the PHL Crime Mapper created by city geographic information systems developer Dave Walk in his free time. Using the crime data released by the city, citizens can view crimes in a customized area and time frame.
“Citizens of the city have a right to know what’s going on in the public space around them,” Walk said. “It’s about transparency.”
The release of crime data last month used in the PHL Crime Mapper included information on approximately 600,000 crimes dating back to 2006, according to Headd.
However, Budde noted that the release only included “Part One Crime,” which includes some of the more serious violations like violent crimes and property crimes. Part Two, which includes offenses like drug crimes, has not yet been released.
Another effort of Wisniewski’s was the creation of the Philly311 system, which he described as a “civic engagement platform.” It is designed as a one-stop destination for citizens seeking any information from the city.
The move towards transparency among city officials has even extended to candidates running for city office.
1993 Fels Institute of Government graduate Brett Mandel — who is campaigning for the Democratic nomination for city controller against incumbent Alan Butkovitz — has made openness about the city budget a major plank in his agenda.
On his campaign website, Mandel shows where “every penny” in the budget goes.
The point, Mandel said, is for citizens to see what government spends money on. “When you see every purchase, you see a lot of funny things,” he said.
According to Headd, one of the challenges of gathering and releasing data is the wide range of departments the information must come from.
“It’s much harder to gain information from departments not under the Mayor’s purview,” he said. Such departments include groups like SEPTA and the Parking Authority.
“It’s not that these departments don’t want to release information,” Headd said. “It really is all about coordinating efforts across the disparate landscape of government entities.”
While much of the efforts at open data are young, many are excited about where it is headed. “As more data comes out,” Budde said, “we want to build even more tools to help citizens.”
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