Jed Sundwall talks Open San Diego’s creation story, deploying an Open Data Catalog with 400+ city datasets, and the need for promotion.
How do you tell the origin story of Open San Diego?
I’d been working on social media strategies for USA.gov and GobiernoUSA.gov and got a front row seat to a lot of the work being done with Internet technology at the federal level. It was immediately obvious that the Internet could have a bigger impact when applied at local levels of government.
Open San Diego started as an idea about two and a half years ago. I attended Transparency Camp West in 2009, where I met Jen Pahlka, Leonard Lin, and Kelly Pretzer who inspired me to get to work in San Diego. I’d been waiting around for someone else to start agitating for a more tech savvy government in San Diego, but finally realized that I was probably a good person to get things going.
Since then, we’ve held a few meetups, some free training classes, set up an instance of GeoNode that we call Open San Diego Maps, created a data directory called Flashlight for journalists, and set up an Open Data Catalog.
As far as membership, It’s all volunteer. My main partner in this is Jeff Johnson (@ortelius) who is a fantastic developer (I’m not) and has taken the lead on maps.opensandiego.org and catalog.opensandiego.org. He works for Open Plans, and is one of the key people behind GeoNode, the open source platform that powers Open San Diego Maps. Dave Maass (@davemaass), a local journalist, built Flashlight.
Open San Diego recently deployed an Open Data Catalog? Why?
Our mission is to make data about San Diego freely available for anyone to use. That’s it. We want to become something like a data library for the city. We believe developers, researchers, journalists, policy makers, and bureaucrats to have easy access to data that accurately describes the city so they can do their jobs more easily.
The Open Data Catalog seemed like a great app that we could set up fairly easily (Jeff is a Python guy) that would help us start organizing the San Diego datasets that we knew about.
Can you describe how the City reacted to your efforts?
The city really encouraged us to build it, so they liked it from day one! San Diego ran an apps challenge this spring, and one of the issues they faced was helping people find datasets. We already had Flashlight – a directory of links to existing San Diego datasets built on WordPress. Flashlight was a great tool for journalists to find datasets based on topics, but we needed a tool to help developers find data based on its characteristics. The Open Data Catalog let us add an extra layer of organization and browsability to the data.
What was the life cycle of the project? How did you chunk out the work? Who stepped up to get it done?
The life cycle was really short. The organizers of the apps challenge encouraged us to get it up quickly to help the app developers. Jeff deployed it and imported the datasets from Flashlight. Then he and I worked together to make it look like an Open San Diego project and knocked out some functionality that we weren’t ready to support, like user registration.
Our District Attorney, Bonnie Dumanis, is a big fan of Open San Diego and actually cut us a check even though we’re not a non-profit yet. Her money is paying for the EC2 server we run the catalog on.
What did you learn from the process?
I learned that we have customers. The city is dying for help like this and we can make a huge impact with a bit of volunteer effort. I know we could make much more of an impact with a more organized approach.
What do you wish you knew before you started?
I wish I knew that I’d have to spend at least as much time promoting our work as I did working on it. This is a hard lesson I learn over and over again. Open San Diego Maps could probably save a few million dollars in licensing fees across the county, but even though it’s free, we’d need to sell people on the idea of learning how to use it. That takes time and money that we just don’t have yet. We’ll get there though.
What’s next for Open San Diego?
We’re excited to start playing with OpenBlock. It’s another Python-based service, so Jeff is hoping we can tie it together with the Open Data Catalog and GeoNode. I really like the idea of OpenBlock because it provides a compelling way for people to explore data about the city. It’s one thing to look at data mapped out across the city, but it’s much more fun to see what you can learn about your block.