March 19, 2013 By Noelle Knell
For Asheville, N.C., CIO Jonathan Feldman, the decision to delve into the world of open data was largely a practical one. In a city of 85,000, Feldman says he’s open to releasing data sets to the public, but when making policy decisions, more pressing needs often rise to the top of the agenda.
“When it comes to funding a police car, fixing the 911 database or doing a fancy transparency app on the Web, what do you think wins?” Feldman asks.
That said, the city has made some progress releasing open data sets via its online portal, opendatacatalog.ashvillenc.gov. The site currently features crime data, the business license master file, street network GIS data, bus and bike routes and much more. And while it takes some work on the city side to prep the data for public consumption, the efforts are paying dividends.
“When we launched our open data portal, all of a sudden, we’re not having to fulfill as many manual open record requests because we’re using open data,” Feldman told Government Technology. “It’s already out there – go get it.”
The city held its first hackathon-style event last October, a business-focused Open Data day that drew nearly 150 people. Feldman and his team were instrumental in the planning and execution of the event, which drew praise from locals and other North Carolina open data enthusiasts. It gave Asheville a chance to highlight business opportunities than can come from cities publishing open data. One local employer with a staff of 35 uses publicly-available data from municipalities, adds their analysis and sells it to insurance companies. Economic development success stories like this one got participants excited about the potential of open data, Feldman said.
For Asheville GIS analysts Dave Michelson and Scott Barnwell, it wasn’t enough to contribute to the city’s open data catalog as members of the internal IT team. Michelson and Barnwell also volunteer time outside of work to help build awareness about open data, and help build a tech community in the Asheville area committed to bringing real value to public data sets.
“Data can be infrastructure, a lot like sidewalks that cities build to allow people to walk into businesses,” Michelson explained. “Not everyone is going to know how to use that data. So us being out there can kind of bridge that gap.”
For Barnwell, getting involved in open data outside of the office was a chance to contribute, using technology, in a very real way. “In this technical world that we live in, it’s nice to have a tangible product that gets produced and used and has real value,” he said.
The first major undertaking of the Code for Asheville group is a budget transparency app, modeled after the “Look at Cook” app launched in Chicago. Asheville’s version, described as a work in progress, leverages the open source foundation used in Cook County, with some custom modifications. The group has bi-weekly “hack nights” where 10 or 12 community members gather to contribute to current projects.
One such community member is Asheville resident and Web developer Aaron Hubbard, who works at a local data center by day. Hubbard has carved out a role for himself in the group coding and modifying features of the budget app, and developing a Web presence for Code for Asheville. Hubbard appreciates the opportunity to bring his technical skills to bear on a meaningful local project.
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen anything that was specifically looking for someone with a tech background,” he said, adding that traditional means of interacting with local government like attending City Council meetings or writing letters can feel like futile endeavors. “I think it’s easy to feel like your voice isn’t being heard or you’re not a big player in the overall scheme of things, but the Internet is pretty egalitarian.”
Barnwell and Michelson emphasize that people of diverse backgrounds and skill levels have shown up to participate in hack nights – a 12-year-old came with his mom, for example, and relished the chance to input data into a spreadsheet for the budget transparency application.
Programmer and entrepreneur Paul Meserve runs a platform-as-a-service company called Pogo App in Asheville. Having met Michelson at a local tech meetup, he’s now become another valuable resource to Code for Asheville.
According to Meserve, city officials support open data efforts like the ones being undertaken by Code for Asheville. The partnership is key, Meserve points out, as city data is the raw material coders need to work on projects like the budget app. City leaders have expressed support for a formal open data initiative, like those popping up in other municipalities, that would require the release of as much government data as possible in standardized formats.
“I do think there's a general case to be made that just having a more transparent government will result in a better government -- that once it's easy for people to see what's actually going on in their city, their state, their country, where the money is going, who it's going to, what's increasing, what's decreasing, etc., who it's coming from, it becomes easier to make better decisions,” Meserve said.
At one hack night meeting in Asheville, a local farmer suggested that the group look into building a food security application. Code for Asheville decided to adopt the issue and work with the local Food Policy Council to see how they might help bring visibility to issues of hunger in the local community.
“It just so happens that western North Carolina is one of the most food-insecure parts of the country, so it’s a very valid thing to be working on for this area, just to address issues of hunger and food access,” Barnwell explained.
The “Hack for Food” concept, while not yet fully formed, will be Asheville’s event held in conjunction with the White House-sponsored National Day of Civic Hacking event coming up in June. Their hope is to get some fresh ideas from participants that Code for Asheville can grab hold of and develop into an app that can provide real value.
Code for Asheville plans broad outreach using social media to encourage participation from the local tech community and local food activists in the Hack for Food event.