An Open Letter to the City of Austin

It’s all about data. We all use data somehow everyday. Bioinformatics analyze different data sequences in order to study DNA. Marketing departments study data from sales to determine new trends in their customers. Companies need to combine data after company mergers. People search on the web in order to find data about specific topics. Web developers create mash-ups by consuming data from different sources. Governments publish their data to maintain transparency. And the list goes on.

However, I’m interested in one particular aspect: open government data. The US government is releasing their data at data.gov. The UK government has their data available at data.gov.uk. The New Zealand government is publishing their data at open.org.nz. And it doesn’t stop there. The following cities are publishing their data: San Francisco (datasf.org), District of Columbia (data.octo.dc.gov/), New York (nyc.gov/html/datamine), Boston (http://hubmaps1.cityofboston.gov/datahub/), Toronto (toronto.ca/open/). The city of London recently held an open event asking developers how it can make best use of the available data.

My questions are simple. What’s up City of Austin? Why are we behind? Aren’t we also considered a tech city? Shouldn’t we already be part of this trend? Why aren’t we already publishing City of Austin data?

There are a number of good reasons the city should publish government data. It can help improve the accessibility, accountability and transparency of the City of Austin. The data can offer citizens a much more efficient way to find useful information. We can help our web development community to create innovative applications that will offer users the valuable information.

All of these open government data efforts have one thing in common: they offer a machine-readable data on the web. What is machine-readable data? It is data that a computer can process without any human intervention in formats such as XML, CSV, KML, RDF, etc. PDFs are not machine-readable because their objective is to show content to humans.

The OpenAustin project has given the floor for people to propose ideas for the requirements of the new City of Austin website. Some of the proposed ideas are to provide an open API to government data, have machine-readable data feeds, and even offer data as Linked Data. However, I am not aware what the situation is at this moment with any of these ideas.

Semantic Web Austin, for one, would be happy to help. We are a newly formed non-profit with several goals. We want to help apply and create leading edge semantic technologies in Austin. We want to position Austin as the leader in the semantic web technology space and be recognized as the go-to place for technology breakthroughs. We want Austin to be a bellwether for startups and business applications in the semantic space. We want to retain, attract and home-grow leading semantic web talent in the technical and business areas. We want to create a sustaining, self-managing community of semantic web technical, business and investment professionals.

Without going into any huge explanation, the Semantic Web is all about publishing linked data on the web. From the beginning, we have been publishing documents on the web. After years of research and hard work, we have created the standards and principles to start publishing data on the web. But you may ask, haven’t we already been publishing data on the web for a while in all these different machine-readable formats? Yes we have! But there is a difference. We have a standardized way of publishing documents on the web: HTML. We now have a standardized way of publishing data on the web: RDF. And if you have the data on the web in the same format which is linked to other data, the possibilities are endless. You can start imagining the whole web as a giant global database. For more information, check out Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s, inventor of the Web, TED talk on Linked Data.

The UK government understands what it means to publish all of their government data on the web as Linked Data and has already become a world showcase. Their recently launched data.gov.uk offers more than 2500 datasets as Linked Data, and apparently it puts the US’ data.gov to shame.

Austin has an opportunity to lead, rather than follow. Other cities in the US have been publishing their data, but none of them have been publishing their data following the Semantic Web standards, data in RDF and as Linked Data. Let’s become the first city in the US to offer true Semantic Web open data.

Who’s with me?

Comments

  1. michellegreer says:

    Dude, don't blame me. I endorsed Brewster McCracken. He'd be all over this.

    This is what Austin gets for continually putting its head in the sand like an ostrich. We need leaders who are willing to see that the semiconductor/hardware industries have moved to Southeast Asia and that we need to think where we'll be in 20 years.

    Good luck to you, Juan.

  2. Open data is a critical step in improving both the efficiency and transparency of governmental institutions. Look no further than two interesting startups that are creating value within this movement: CitySourced (http://www.citysourced.com/) and my company Piryx (http://www.piryx.com/). CitySourced would essentially “croud source” trouble tickets for city services (think potholes and broken sprinklers). Piryx would automate the reporting and public sharing of contributions made to political office holders as it is done at the State and Federal level.

    I join Juan in encouraging our city leaders to make a commitment to openness, data transparency and improved efficiency.

  3. Juan,

    As I'm sure you already know. Always been a big fan of your discussions on data and semantic web. This has always been a fundamental mission of Piryx, and will continue to be such. Opening data up for mashups and just generally creating a more connected government is very necessary for the future of our country.

    The problem is mostly centered at the city and county governmental level. Both types of institutions are still on a “paper” based systems. Meaning, it's either “electronic” copies of paper (Not exactly the most helpful)…or just straight up paper records. Within the city and county governments, they only have to follow the letter of the law. Which doesn't explicitly describe “data” availability as part of general description. Archives and Records divisions are typically managed this way, and generally standards are set by the State of Texas and the groups that oversee Archives and Records. The biggest problem, cost. money. cold hard cash and man power.

    Standards are created or dictated by legislation over at 11th and Congress. Last year I spent a few weeks over at the capital lobbying for against a law that was in the elections committee, that would basically require city and county governments to develop online systems for accepting campaign finance reports. What? Yes, against. The problem with the bill was that it didn't require the state to engage in a bidding process for Texas Businesses, since it was proposed by the Texas Ethics Commission. The highly over inflated price of the package was far more than ultimately necessary to build such a system. I knew this because I had built the same system myself. The sky high price was what ultimately killed the bill, thus it never made it out of calendars and onto the floor. If anyone has ever seen the software built by the TEC for campaign finance, you'd marvel at how the state can spend half a million dollars only 7 years ago on a visual basic software system with an access database backed…yeah, scary. As much as I REALLY wanted a bill like this to pass, how can I stand by and watch tax payer dollars be wasted on sub-par technology and business processes. Especially when small business can serve the same purpose for a fraction of the cost. This needs to be fixed. Bottom line, most of the legislators didn't realized better technology existed – or that some how small business had it figured out already. This is an education problem on the part of our elected officials. We, as small business leaders and technology thought leaders, need to reeducation and inform them so they can make better policy decisions. Typically, most folks just attack government for not doing something – instead of understanding why they're doing what they're doing.

    With that said, I think the key here is to engage the Texas Business Community. Form a PAC coalition to lobby and educate government for more access to data, WITH rights for Texas Businesses to actually bid on projects (With hopefully more transparency in such bidding processes). And not a government run committee to fix the problem, it needs to be outside government and not padded with folks “resumes”. They need true thought leaders in this regard. Government should not be building technology (which too often it does), it should be relying on folks like you and I – who they can outsource it to. Ultimately keeping costs low via a small business's motivation for profit to keeping cost drivers low – yet wielding a better product in the long run.

    Bottom line, legislation has to be changed to make local, state, and federal governments move this direction. Along with a financial model that makes sense for governmental budgets…because paper documents sitting in an archive from 1838 will take an army to convert – not to mention overhaul poorly developed government legacy systems. Putting newer more flexible systems in place now can help for future generations, but the data we all want now is the historical data. That's where I think financial creativity and small business ingenuity can most definitely come in to play.

    Out of the 89,000 municipalities across the country, 5 can accept electronic campaign finance reports. The problem is pervasive and it's massive, and it's going to take a mission centric coalition to change it and ultimately help fix it. We can't leave it up to government, nor do I think we can ask them to do fix it – we have to do it ourselves. It's a plethora of problems that people have to get organized around to fix. Finance, Technology Standards, Lobby, and Legislation. And even then, it'll take fortitude to see it through.

    Great article, on a topic I love.

    Regards,
    -T

  4. josephckelly says:

    Infochimps.org, a local data repository, is keen to help as well.

    Well put, Juan.

  5. When it comes to state data, we're doing what we can at the Texas Tribune with the structured data we can get online and through open records requests, but the vast majority of the information the state collects is socked away in PDFs of scanned forms, or other inconvenient formats. For instance, if you want to build an app that lets people manipulate budget data, the best the state can offer is a text version of the appropriations bill that you can parse values out of if you're willing to sacrifice some of your sanity.

    It's 2010. In most cases, it's probably cheaper and easier to collect and provide data in a machine-readable format than the alternative, which is often sending out paper forms for people to fill out and mail back. There's no reason for data about our state and local governments to be this hard to access.

    http://trib.it/tribdata

  6. Hi, Juan. We're actually kicking off Phase I of our Web redesign next Friday, and would love to have you involved when we begin the public input process. In fact, we should have a signed Charter agreement with OpenAustin at that point, and have the redesign team meeting with them next week, so if you're involved with that group you should be hearing more from them in the next few weeks.

    In reference to your question about data, believe me when I say that we've already been working on it, and have a limited set of data ready to go…we're now working with our departments to flush out that catalogue of data so that it will be meaningful once released. In fact, part of our Charter with OpenAustin will include enlisting their help in identifying existing and potential data feeds for a fully-functional portal for the community.

    Give me a call (or e-mail) and we can talk more about Semantic's potential to help us in the effort.

    Doug Matthews
    Chief Communications Director
    City of Austin
    974-2231
    douglas.matthews@ci.austin.tx.us

  7. Thanks for all the awesome comments!

    It's great to know that we can count on awesome people and companies in Austin.

    Doug, thanks for responding. I am glad to hear that the web redesign is kicking off. And more importantly that you will be releasing data sets. However, I would like to advocate the use of semantic web and linked data technologies when releasing the data. It is my belief that this will put the City of Austin in a pioneer position. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has published two important notes that recommend the use of Linked Data when publishing Government Open Data.

    http://www.w3.org/TR/gov-data/
    http://www.w3.org/TR/egov-improving/

    I look forward to continue this conversation with you and everybody interested.

  8. Thanks for the shout out Jon (and the great blog post Juan!). CitySourced is all about opening up data to the masses. We have APIs that allow pretty much anyone to pull down (and even push in) data through a variety of REST calls. Juan, if you know of anyone in the city government that would be interested in our product, be sure to reach out to me – jason(at)citysourced(dot)com

    Thanks!

  9. juliogonzalez says:

    @Juan: I completely agree. Are you organizing an advocacy org?

    @Doug: How does one get involved in the City's process?

    I am an end-user of the data. I've advocated for open government data in person to different local candidates I have supported and in the discussion of Austin Energy's new manager, but we need to get organized to make it happen. I've also written about the topic on Keep Austin Wonky at:

    http://wp.me/py8JD-32

  10. I am planning to organize the next Semantic Web Austin meetup in mid February and host a panel discussion on this topic. We will announce this shortly

  11. Everyone that is interested in learning more or sharing what you know about open data, open government initiatives, “government as a platform,” etc. please join us in organizing an unconference event later this Spring. See: http://barcamp.pbworks.com/txgov20

  12. It's great that the City's Chief Communications Director Doug Matthews responded here. As you can see, the City is pretty much committed to doing exactly what you're suggesting.

    The place to stay informed of City of Austin activity is the AustinGO (Austin Government Online) web site (http://www.austingo.org). It was quiet through the winter, but that's because the City was in procurement for services. I'm expecting a lot more activity (public activity) in the coming months.

    At the Dec 9 meeting of the Community Technology and Telecommunications Commission, the City's Chief Communications Director Doug Matthews specifically addressed the question of providing datasets.

    Presentation here:
    http://austintx.swagit.com/play/12092009-44/4/

    The discussion comes at 18:20 in the presentation.

    In that presentation, Doug mentions that the City will be engaging in an agreement with Open Austin (http://www.openaustin.org) to provide public/crowdsourced participation. I ran into whurley moments ago and he agreed that's on track to be a reality. So if you'd like to help in the effort, I'd urge you to get involved with Open Austin.

  13. jeanrose says:

    How novel, refreshing, relieving, encouraging, and down right astounding to see a young type CONCERNED about someone and something other than herself. It's astounding too, that she has knowledge and correct information.You go Girl!! Oh, forgot: AND SHE CAN SPELL THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE!!!! WOW, WOW, WOW, WOW, WOW!!!!!

  14. Search public records fast, free, and easy. The most popular public records resource available. Nationwide directory of online and offline free public.

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