ICYMI (In Case You Missed It): TransparencyCamp Event

It’s almost summertime, and that means families around the country are preparing for one of the season’s greatest offerings: summer camp. While kids gallivant around, play games or go fishing, there’s much more to camp than meets the eye. One of the greatest benefits of camp I’ve experienced is community. Summer camp brings together kids and adults from all different backgrounds to share a week tent pitching and team building. I remember always coming home from camp having learned a lot of life lessons and gaining insights from the people I met.

This past weekend, the Sunlight Foundation got a head start on the summer camp season. The open government civil society group hosted TransparencyCamp at George Mason University (Arlington Campus).

The two-day event brought together journalists, government officials, public servants, and IT specialists to discuss transparency and open data in government. I checked out a few of the sessions Friday afternoon, and wanted to share some of the key takeaways from the forum.

The first session I attended featured Mark Headd, developer evangelist and former Philadelphia Chief Data Officer. Headd discussed open data initiatives in Philadelphia since the mayor passed an Executive Order in 2012.

This order mandated open data standards throughout the city. Since then, the city has made more than 60 datasets openly available to the public. They have also launched a developer portal, which includes application programming interfaces (APIs) and an updated app gallery.

Despite these positive steps, there is still work to be done. “The only thing [governments are] worse at than sharing data externally, is sharing it internally,” Headd remarked. Making data open is an opportunity for governments to practice better data integration. To illustrate this point, Headd shared an example from Philadelphia’s property assessment and tax balance data sheets.

The agency that manages the property assessment data is also responsible for licensing building and property permits to individuals. Meanwhile, a different agency handles property tax balance information. Both of these datasets are accessible, but they aren’t shared between the two departments. Head noted that as a result individuals with back taxes continue to receive building permits, adding up to more than $48 million in uncollected taxes since 2006.

Headd believes a solution is for data to be integrated into one comprehensive API. By using an API, the agency would know who owes back taxes, and deny their permit applications. Not only would this streamline the licensing process, but also save the city millions of dollars.

Headd offered a set of 7 tips for public servants implementing open data standards:

  1. Know your friends. Who’s using your data and why? Become allies with those who understand the value of data.
  2. Know your enemies. Not all are in favor of open data. Headd mentioned lawyers and PR representatives, both of which could be negative impacts if rubbed the wrong way.
  3. Be prepared for outdated technology. A lot of the open data processing involves making databases and networks up-to-date.
  4. Be prepared for conflict. Similar to knowing your enemies, there will most likely be opposition from a variety of sources.
  5. Be prepared for indifference. Some may not care about open data. It is important to convey why making data open is beneficial.
  6. Place Chief Data Officer under the leadership of authority who prioritizes the initiative. If the mayor spearheads the effort, the CDO should be under the mayor’s authority and not in a separate department.
  7. Laws trump executive orders. It is imperative to pass some legal standards in order to keep open data efforts rolling. Laws ensure accountability.

The session ended with a brief Q&A time. One of the most solid takeaways was Headd’s response to the question: “What data must a city publish in order to be considered an open city?”

“To be an open city, you must release data for these three things: busses, bullets and bucks,” said Headd. Transportation information, crime data and budgets are the most pertinent sets of data in order for a municipality to be transparent.

While publicly available data is great for citizens, it helps governments immensely too. “We’re not just doing this because we want to be open and transparent – which we do,” Headd stated. “We want government to work better.”

Look for a follow-up post on TransparencyCamp, featuring sessions with Jeanne Holm and members of the Sunlight Local team on Data.gov and local open data adoption strategies.

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