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Welcome to Philadelphia's open data revolution





Our world is filled with data -- opaque, complicated, voluminous data. Fortunately, the City of Philadelphia's open data policy (enacted in 2002) -- paired with an ascendant local tech community -- has spawned a new generation of integrated tools that make digesting data easy.

Want some examples?

If you're confused about the upcoming property tax changes, have no fear. Last week, the city released an AVI Calculator that makes understanding the personal impact of the mayor's Actual Value Initiative as easy as a few clicks. It also released the data via an API (that's an Application Programming Interface, a type of software that shares information with multiple websites or applications) which made it easier for AxisPhilly to create this map visualization, an easy way to compare your property tax bill with any other local property owner.

Want a deeper view of your neighborhood? Search for your address using Dave Walk's PHL Crime Mapper or Philly Crime Map to digest the city's recently re-released crime data. Then use the License to Inspect app -- created by Azavea for PlanPhilly using Licenses & Inspections Department data -- to find out whether your neighbor's rooftop deck violates a law. Then you've got to hit up GreatPhillySchools.org to compare public and charter high schools in your area. 

While you're at it, you can look up the most common tree in your neighborhood, the next SEPTA bus, the closest healthy corner store, the Streets Department's 2012 budget, an old photo of your aunt's house in South Philly and the closest mural to your front door.

A Grand Tradition 

Of course, Philadelphia's commitment to open data isn't new. Our hometown hero Ben Franklin didn't patent the lightning rod, bifocals or any of his other inventions; he believed in sharing knowledge for the common good, and said so in his autobiography: "As we enjoy great advantages from the invention of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously."  

That was more than 240 years ago.

This desire to get things done -- often with a DIY ethos -- and a strong belief in transparency are important elements of Philadelphia's identity, says Geoff DiMasi, one of many people involved in the city's open data initiatives. 

DiMasi runs P'unk Avenue, a South Philly-based software development firm that builds websites for social good. He's also a co-founder of co-working space Indy Hall, an Ignite Philly organizer and co-founder of the Passyunk Square Civic Association

DiMasi witnessed the beginning of the movement in March 2001 when "Godfather of Open Data" Ed Goppelt used the Freedom of Information Act to launch the now-defunct government watchdog site HallWatch.org.  

He saw that spark again at the Passyunk Square Civic Association, when neighbors in the district collected zoning data to better understand the ways various properties could be used. And he was inspired when the Philadelphia School Partnership tirelessly gathered data for the P'unk Avenue team, leading to GreatPhillySchools.org, the only website that allows parents, policy makers and scholars to do a side-by-side comparison of the city's public, parochial, charter and private schools.

There are many other examples of citizens working together to make something meaningful out of available information. The three developers behind iSepta, a rail schedule app, weren't given datasets from SEPTA. Designer Jason Tremblay and developers Randy Schmidt and Chris Conley obtained the data themselves (using a process called "scraping") and gave the app to the city as a gift.

Just recently, developer Ben Garvey responded to an inquiry sent to Indy Hall members by City Controller Candidate Bret Mandel. He built a treemap-style chart that allowed the public to view complex budget data in simple way, and released it to the public 10 weeks later. He made the code available on GitHub, a popular site for sharing projects. An Italian software development firm eventually repurposed it to visualize their country's national budget.

Government Action

The movement has picked up speed in recent years thanks to an unlikely leader: the city goverment.

"Philadelphia has been with the program and ahead of the curve for more than a decade," says Robert Cheetham, owner of the geospatial technology firm Azavea, which built OpenTreeMap and DistrictBuilder, among others. "They just didn't do a good job of making everything they were doing accessible in one place until recently." 

As the city's first Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Programmer, Cheetham gathered and organized the city's map-based data, making it easier to share information across departments. When well-organized, the maps maintained by the streets department could be used by the police and water departments.

Then, in 2002, the city adopted their open data policy: it would release data to the public unless there was a reason not to.

And they did. The city released new data every year on a Spatial Data Clearing House site run by Penn State called PASDA, and various departments started building web-based mapping applications for public use. 

PhillyHistory.org is an example of an early effort to release meaningful data to the public while bringing new revenue to the city. The Azavea-built map-based app displays photographic archives collected by the city's official photography department for more than 100 years. 

Commissioner Joan Decker came up with an idea, thinking that people might want to browse and then buy prints of their family homes or businesses. The prototype contained only 200 or so photos, but was a huge success. Today there are more than 2 million photos accessible via the website, and several organizations have used the technology crafted by Azavea.

As a community of coders, designers and activists started learning about open data projects in other cities, they started gathering to discuss how Philly might catch up. What started as an "unconference" to talk about data turned into Refresh Philly, which then folded into OpenAccessPhilly, a group organized by Manager of Civic Innovation and Participation Jeff Friedman. 

In January 2009, the state enacted the Right to Know Law, which gives the public access to public records and requires government agencies to respond to requests within 30 days.

A cultural shift was underway, buoyed by the release of the aggregator site Open Data Philly during Philly Tech Week 2010. The subsequent Open Data Race encouraged nonprofits to spread the word about open data to their networks by offering a financial reward to the winning data set nomination.

And the city kept rolling, fulfilling its promise to take data seriously. The city's first Chief Innovation Officer, Adel W. Ebeid, came on to lead the Office of Innovation and Technology (OIT) within weeks of the Open Data Race results. Then, after a little more than a year, the new CIO was honored by U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park as a "Champion of Change."

In August, self-taught programmer Mark Headd from Code for America was hired as Philadelphia's Chief Data Officer, an unexpected career move that came after he called Ebeid, telling him "very directly" what the city should do with data. Ebeid suggested he bring those ideas with him and work for the city.

The government is set up to be inefficient, argues Headd, so when it wanted to build software, they either did it themselves or through the typical government procurement process, which doesn't keep pace with technology. 

"We're not going to do things like that in the future," says Headd. "In the future, you're going to see us being the data stewards. We're going to release this data to the community of people who want to do things with it and want to help us."

Tim Wisniewski, the first Director of Civic Technology for Philadelphia (the post is actually a first worldwide), joined the city's mission in December. Wisniewski leveraged the power of technology and data to build TextBlast, making it easier for community organizers to send mass communication to residents without Internet access (which includes 41 percent of the population in Philly).  

Before joining city government, Wisniewski also built AnalyzetheVote.com using public election data and PhillySnap, an app created during the first Philly Random Hacks of Kindness event -- it allows citizens to find the nearest SNAP/Food Stamp-accepting farmers' market or SNAP-participating healthy corner store by texting their address to a certain number.

Now he's tasked with managing civic technology for the city, making it easier for others to build tech for social good by releasing data through APIs.  "The purpose from the government perspective is a transparency thing," he says, "But in some ways we're acknowledging that don't have all of the ideas."

The Big (Data) Picture

If you've left this column several times to stare at an app like PHL Crime Mapper or AxisPhilly's Property Tax Change map and still don't see the potential impact, think about what might happen once these datasets are combined into one visual.

By looking at public art and crime and property value data together, we can see how a community changes over time. Cheetham suggests that we can then start to answer more sophisticated questions like, Did the crime rate change when a mural was added? What about trees? What trends can we see between property value, demographics and crime? 

And then, perhaps, that will allow us to make more strategic improvements. 

"The opportunity to make new meaning out of data is what makes it so interesting," says DiMasi. "Layering crime data, mural arts data, school data, community investment, and other factors could tell us something about the future of our city."

LINDSAY HICKS is a Philly-based writer and product manager. Her latest endeavor: learning to code with help from Girl Develop It.
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