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Philadelphia Open Government 2011 Year in Review

The time of year-end reviews and top 10 lists is now upon us, so I’m compiling the details of a watershed year for open data and civic hacking in two cities where I’ve seen huge leaps made in 2011 - Philadelphia and Baltimore.

By GovFresh · December 29, 2011

Photo by vic15

The time of year-end reviews and top 10 lists is now upon us, so I’m compiling the details of a watershed year for open data and civic hacking in two cities where I’ve seen huge leaps made in 2011 - Philadelphia and Baltimore.

In this first installment, I’ll focus on the “City of Brotherly Love” and highlight some of the events and developments of the past year that made it such a special one for the open government movement there.  In the next installment, I’ll do the same for “Charm City.”

Code for America Launches in Philadelphia

2011 began with enormous potential for the growth of the open government footprint in Philadelphia because of a group of coders and designers that came to town as part of Code for America (CfA).  Philadelphia was one of the CfA partner cities for 2011, and the group of fellows that came to town in the early part of the year wasted no time in making their presence felt.

The group tore into it’s work, and kicked of a series of informal hackathons that primed the pump for much of the civic hacking that was to come later in the year.  To my knowledge, these events were the very first of what could be called “civic hacking” events to take place in Philadelphia, and I thought their impact was hugely important:

“What I was most impressed with was the ability of this event to highlight to those that were there what is truly possible when government data is open to and usable by developers. It provided an object lesson for all those there on the true potential of civic hacking…

“Having the Code for America fellows in Philadelphia, and having them essentially kick start civic coding using city data, has accelerated the awareness of what is possible. I think people would have achieved the awareness that was realized yesterday eventually, but the CfA fellows got people there sooner.

Throughout the year, in addition to its primary mission in Philadelphia, CfA and the fellows that were a part of it were involved in a number of different aspects of the open government evolution taking place in that city.  Whether as speakers, supporters or participants in other civic events, the “CfA effect’ was an important component of what happened in Philadelphia this past year on the open government front.

OpenDataPhilly and Philly Tech Week

In late April, Philadelphia made big waves in the open data world by launching its own unique open data repository.

Announced at the kick off event for the very first “Philly Tech Week,” the website and data repository was unveiled with great fanfare.  The unique approach taken by Philadelphia has turned out to be a key to it’s success:

“The city actively partnered with outside parties, private firms, not-for-profits and universities to help set the direction of the city’s open data efforts. The OpenDataPhilly website itself, although it’s brimming with data collected and maintained by the city, was developed by the geospatial and civic application firm Azavea, and is not hosted or operated by the city.  The website, and the larger open data effort in Philadelphia, operates under the stewardship of a group made up of both public sector and private sector partners.”

The follow up to the launch of the OpenDataPhilly site was quick, and turned out to have some lasting impact in the Philly open government movement.

At the end of Philly Tech Week, Technically Philly convened a hackathon that took place in conjunction with BarCamp News Innovation at Temple University.  The hackers at this event focused their attention on property data within the City of Philadelphia, and developed a web app built from “liberated” Office of Property Assessment data that made the data more easily searchable.

This theme of searchable property records has continued to resonate in the open data and journalism communities, and the app originally built at that initial post-OpenDataPhilly event continues to be actively developed and used.

Hackathons and more Hackathons

Following Philly Tech Week, several other fruitful hacking events were organized in Philadelphia that have helped develop more open data and APIs in Philly, and more useful civic applications.

In June and December, Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) events were held at Drexel University, organized by Drexel PhD candidate Mike Brennan.  Both events have produced nationally recognized civic applications.

The June RHoK event produced PhillySNAP - a text messaging application that helps people locate SNAP vendors that sell fresh produce in their neighborhoods.  This application received an honorable mention in the FCC’s Apps for Communities contest.

The December RHoK event produced Sheltr - a mobile web application that provides food and shelter information for those seeking to assist the homeless.  This application was named “Best Social Service Application” in the recently completed GovFresh Awards contest.

In October, a group of hackers convened on the Devnuts co-working space in Northern Liberties to build applications using SEPTA data and APIs.  This event produced a number of useful applications, and also had the full cooperation and support of SEPTA staff.  In addition, several weeks after the event, Mike Zaleski - Director Emerging and Specialty Technology at SEPTA - organized a unique event to bring the civic hackers into SEPTA for a behind the scenes tour and a showcase for SEPTA employees.

OpenData Race and the Road Ahead in 2012

The road ahead into 2012 for open government and open data in Philly was set with the launch of the OpenData Race in August.

The OpenData Race was a competition open to not-for-profits that want to obtain data from the City of Philadelphia to further their missions and to better serve their constituencies.  It called on not-for-profits to nominate data that is not currently available through the OpenDataPhilly site or through other sources to be released by the city in an open format.  The top nominations received cash prizes, and the OpenDataPhilly team is now working with the City of Philadelphia to facilitate the release of the winning data sets.

The winning data sets - announced at the Crowdsourcing at the Intersection forum in October - will fuel a new series of civic hacking events in 2012 and continue the virtuous cycle that was begun this year with newly open data leading to greater civic participation and the development of useful civic applications.

Code for America will be back to Philly next year, and 2012 is shaping up to be another productive one for the open data movement n Philadelphia.

Open Gov Champions for 2011

Now that 2011 is almost complete, I think its fitting to single out several people who have helped shape the landscape of the open gov movement in Philadelphia.  These are by no means the only individuals who helped push things forward this year - the movement, by definition, is open and encompasses lots of people from a wide array of backgrounds and skill sets.  That, in my mind, is what makes it so potent.

However, when I think about the open government movement in Philadelphia it is hard to imagine how it would work without these people.

Robert Cheetham - President and CEO of Azavea.  Robert was one of the driving forces behind OpenDataPhilly and the OpenData Race.  His firm built the platform that runs, and he has helped launch it as an open data platform in other cities. His knowledge of technology and Philadelphia government ,and his passion for civic improvement make him the “Godfather” of open data in Philly.

Christopher Wink - Co-founder of publishing strategy firm Technically Media and its technology news site Technically Philly. Chris believes in open government and open data down to his bones, and it shows in his tireless coverage and support for open government events. Technically Philly sponsored pretty much every single civic hacking event in Philly in 2011, and was another driving force behind OpenDataPhilly and the OpenData Race.  Chris is one of the most progressive thinkers on open data that I know, and I think his vision will help chart the path that we travel down for years to come.

Jeff Friedman - Manager of Civic Innovation & Participation in the Office of Mayor Michael A. Nutter.  The “inside man” for open data in Philly, Jeff is a tireless advocate for Code for America, civic participation and changing the way government engages citizens.  Jeff has helped bring together smart passionate people in Philly over the past year to help move the open government effort forward.