A warrior for open data

Web programmer Tony Webster is part of a local ‘civic hacking’ group working to make city information more transparent

Photo by Michelle Bruch Credit: Civic hackers met over the summer to build community applications using public data.

Tony Webster waited five months to receive a data dump of restaurant food code violations from the city of Minneapolis. But once he had the data, it took him a single night to post it online with a search engine.

“You look up any restaurant in San Francisco and you see the safety rating right there in the review. It’s a really good point of pressure for businesses to value safety and cleanliness,” Webster said. “Out of the largest 50 cities in the country, we’re the only one that doesn’t have this information online in any format.”

Webster and his new site www.mplshealth.com are part of a growing national movement advocating for open data and more transparency in government. When the city of Chicago created a data feed of every towed car in the city, Webster built an app to alert the owners of towed vehicles, texting them the impound lot and phone number.

On his personal website, Webster notes that plenty of groups embrace the concept of open data. Highway agencies share traffic sensor data, he said, allowing Google to provide real-time traffic snapshots. Likewise, the Federal Election Commission shares campaign contribution data for journalists to mine.

Locally, Webster is a member of Open Twin Cities, a 10-month-old group of “civic hackers” formed as a nonprofit partnership between E-Democracy.org and Code for America. Another Open Twin Cities member, Alan Palazzolo, recently launched a crime app with MinnPost, and he helped create Adopt-a-hydrant, allowing Twin Citians to claim a hydrant and take responsibility for shoveling it out of snowdrifts. And during a recent weekend hackathon, four guys created a real-time bus tracking app that earned them a trip to the WhiteHouse.

Webster said he was shocked by the amount of traffic on his new restaurant website — in the first two days, 6,700 unique people searched for 24,000 restaurants. He’d love to have a constant data feed from the city to keep it current. He envisions a phone app where anyone could report a concern.

But Webster’s aspirations go far beyond restaurants. He lives in North Minneapolis, on a block with two vacant houses that are constantly broken into. He wants better access to crime stats and property owner data.

“We don’t have a database where we can run queries,” he said. “There is no way to find who the worst landlords are.”

City data holds many answers, Webster said, but few can use it.

The United States Public Interest Research Group gave Minneapolis a grade of D-minus this year for transparency in city spending. The report said residents can see basic documents regarding the budget and financial solvency, but they have little other spending information at their fingertips. Cities with the best grades, like Chicago and New York, can download “checkbook-level” detail.

Webster and other Open Twin Cities members are setting up a meeting with city officials to convince them that open data policies are good for the community.

Bill Bushey, co-founder of Open Twin Cities and tech coordinator of E-Democracy.org, is also creating a questionnaire for mayoral candidates. The survey asks whether candidates would consider opening more city datasets for public access.

“In some cases, this might be the first time a candidate has been presented with that issue,” Bushey said. “Our ultimate goal is some type of open data policy for the city. … Our first step to get to that issue is put this in front of political figures.”

New open data projects

A team at MinnPost has spent months working to obtain crime data from the Minneapolis Police Department. A new monthly crime app illustrates the crime rate per 1,000 residents in each neighborhood, using data taken from Excel files on the city’s website. The page charts the total incident trend for the year. The app is searchable by address or neighborhood, and it shows the breakdown of incidents and how they have changed in the past month.

“We make the data more visual, so people can see what the crime is in an aggregate form,” said Palazzolo, MinnPost’s interactive developer. “People are very affected by individual crimes. If they read about a burglary down the street, they are going to feel unsafe. We’re trying not to show each individual crime, but show crime as a whole in the city.”

The data team also hopes to receive more granular data, like the time and specific location of each incident, along with lower-level misdemeanor crime data.

“The MPD does a lot of data analysis. They have predictive models that show where crimes are going to happen down to the intersection,” Palazzolo said. “We should be able to make our own analysis.”

When data is freely available, projects can come together quickly — at a weekend-long Hack for MN event last summer, one group created a new app that maps the proximity of buses in real time. Mspbus.org uses geolocation data from phones and Metro Transit buses to help people track the next bus on their routes. Co-creator Matt Decuir said the group is thinking about expanding the app to add Nice Ride bikes, Amtrak routes and even airline flights to the site.

“We’re thinking big,” Decuir said. “This could be more than just buses and more than just Minneapolis.”

Following the app’s rollout, the founders were invited to the White House in July to hear a panel speak on open government. The panel included E-Democracy.org founder Steven Clift, who was honored as one of 14 “Civic Hacking Champions of Change.” He launched the civic website in 1994, creating the world’s first election information website.

Open data policies are starting to become more common. A federal memorandum issued in May now requires executive agencies to collect information in a way that would support wider dissemination. The memo notes that the government’s decades-old decision to make weather data and GPS freely available led to widespread innovations.

“In a way, this is a 21st century version of an age-old problem,” Bushey said. “Citizens have always wanted more access to government.”