14 May 2014

On May 12, 2014 Nashville’s Mayor Karl Dean signed Executive Order #43. Thanks to the sartorially gifted Jacques Woodcock I was able to attend the event in order to help answer questions from the media about how this is a Good Thing.

In general, any level of transparency from government is a Good Thing. However, some common issues that arise with “open data” is as follows:

  • The data is often released in unfriendly formats (e.g., PDF, Word Documents)
    • This means the data is often summarized, so you get no details about the underlying data.
    • It’s also more difficult to parse the data in any automated way
  • The data is not timely enough to be useful.
    • Obviously, historical data can be useful in its own right, but as a general rule, the more timely the data, the more valuable it is.

In the past, this has certainly been an issue with data released from Metro Nashville. However, the Executive Order is intended to address some of these issues.

The Good

The Objectives

First, the order has the following admirable objectives:

  • Publish Open Data in a timely and consistent manner.
  • Publish Open Data in machine-readable formats that engage the community by soliciting their ideas, input, and creative energy to support the development of applications and tools that enable the public to access, visualize, and analyze Open Data in new and innovative ways.
  • Adopt standards that improve transparency, access to Open Data, and improved coordination and efficiencies across Metropolitan Government departments.

This addresses the two issues mentioned above. It’s difficult to be precise about what the adopted “standards” will be, but I assume it means that each data set should have a clearly defined process for pushing it to Socrata.

The Platform

That leads me to the next good thing: Socrata. Socrata is the platform that Metro has chosen to host their data. It’s a common choice for municipalities. New York, Chicago, and others have already been publishing their data sets on the platform. It is, alas, a for-profit entity so there is some risk associated with choosing it as a platform. From what I gathered in conversations with Metro’s Chief Innovation Officer Yiaway Yeh the platform is paid for with federal grants. Hopefully the continuity of the underlying grants is not in question (if you have more information on this, please leave a comment at the bottom!).

On the other hand, open source projects have a huge issue with long-term support. Projects that cannot be maintained internally suffer from abandonment. Any project that expects long-term viability must be absolutely dead-simple to host and maintain (a great example of this is the ESL Map written at HackNashville and the work done it by my colleague Jason Myers). Perhaps hosting it with a for-profit company has it’s upside in long-term viability.

Socrata platform’s wide adoption makes it an overall good choice, in my opinion. It’s well-documented, for starters.

The Not-So-Great

I’m not terribly pleased with the list of exempted departments. It’s a rather long list with some fairly large departments:

Board of Education/Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, Nashville Electric Service, Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority, Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency, Metropolitan Transit Authority, Metropolitan Sports Authority, Convention Center Authority, Health and Educational Facilities Board, Industrial Development Board, non-professional employees of the Board of Health, and the offices of elected officials. The Mayor requests, however, that the excluded entities voluntarily undertake to develop and adopt similar policies.

That last touch is nice, but I wonder if it will carry much weight.

Let’s Build Something!

The timing of the order coincides with the National Day of Civic Hacking and it’s local branch, Hack For Change Nashville. I definitely look forward to seeing what local developers do with this data!

What data sets do you find most interesting? What questions do you think this data might answer? Leave a comment or get in touch with me on Twitter at @byeliad.

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