Q & A with the Open Twin Cities founders

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Open Twin Cities
Open Twin Cites founders William (Bill) Bushey and Alan Palazzolo.

What was the inspiration to start an organized group addressing open data on a state level?

AP: In short, our goal is to build the civic tech community in the Twin Cities and Minnesota.  The main motivation came from my personal time as a Code for America fellow in 2011 and the growing national and global open government movements.

Open Twin Cities is not just about open data, its about using technology to make our communities’ lives better, which is often driven from open data.

BB: There are a lot of people who like to tinker and build new things. The purpose of Open Twin Cities is to be a club for those people in the Cities who want to tinker with community technology, and where possible, to turn tinkered technology into deployed tools that serve people in the Twin Cities.

The technologies that Open Twin Cities can develop will require access to government data, as it’s one of the raw resources of the civic hacking movement. Given the importance of government transparency in our democracy, and citizen engagement with our government processes, it is a resource that should have as few barriers to access as possible.

When did it start coming together?

AP: Our first meeting was October 30, 2012.  Bill and I had met a little before that and discussed what we might want to do with the group.

BB: Through out 2012 I kept running into people at various meetups who were interested in the idea of a group that develops civic technology. I met Alan in the fall of 2012, I think soon after he had moved back to the Twin Cities from his Code for America fellowship.

Where does the group stand today in terms of members, events held, etc.?

AP: We have held about 10 monthly meetings, been heavily involved in 3 hackathon events, and have about 100 members.

What have been some accomplishments?

AP: The hackathons have been important events as they have built community, exciting applications, and really shown that people and organizations are willing to put in time and resources into the civic tech movement. For me, personally, meeting Mark Ritchie, the MN Secretary of State, was a big milestone, as well as being able to meet with MN CIO and the Minneapolis CIO.

BB: Our forum is probably the best representation of group membership. We’d definitely like to grow the group and hold more meetups (hopefully weekly), but we’re certainly pleased with where the group is now. I’ve always been impressed with how quickly Adopt-a-Hydrant came out. Alan suggested deploying an instance of that at our first meetup – about the time we were deciding on a name. Within a month it was online with data for all hydrants in Minneapolis and St. Paul. For a group that barely existed, that seemed like a huge accomplishment.

Visualizing Neighborhoods and Hack for MN were also big highlights for us. Combined, they brought out 125 people on beautiful, back to back summer weekends. 20+ projects were worked on. They also had significant government participation; the University of Minnesota and the City of Minneapolis really led on Visualizing Neighborhoods, while the CIOs of Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Minnesota all came out for Hack for MN. To me, all of that served as proof that civic hacking had arrived in the Twin Cities.

What has been the biggest learning experience?

AP: I expected more momentum by now.  I thought by providing a space and building a group, folks would jump in and start building technology, but that has not happened on the scale that I envisioned.  Don’t get me wrong, there has been lots of amazing progress, but I have learned that my expectations were a bit unrealistic.

BB: As an organization, one thing we are always learning about is what motivates people to participate. We walk a fine line because we want OTC to be a place where people can play – have fun talking about and trying new things. But we also want to see deployable technologies come out of OTC. That transition from playing to producing is tricky since the motivations are usually quite different. We haven’t figured out that transition yet, but our experience with a few projects, plus the breadth of experience of other civic hacking groups around the country, indicates that the transition involves some combination of a money, recognition, and impact.

Open Twin Cities is kind of a start-up, so I’ve personally learned a lot from all the things that come with being in a start-up. We have to do a lot of the same things that other start-ups do – build relationships, communicate who we are and what we do, secure funding, develop strategies, etc… Having to do a bit of all of that, I’ve gotten a better sense of what I enjoy and what I don’t, as well as what I have a knack for and what I don’t. On that note, if anybody wants to offer advice or help out with communications, drop me a line.

What are the opportunities you see in the future? What are some of the barriers to opening more data in Minnesota?

AP: My biggest issue right now is getting some more open data policies in place on a state level, but also on municipal and agency level. Minnesota has some good laws about how data is public, but it does not go into any details into how accessible data needs to be, so in practice, and especially in the context of technology building, data is pretty closed off.  This is why we need policies set by elected officials and people in higher positions that state that making data
open and accessible is a priority and hopefully goes into the actual mechanics of how data can be opened.

The recently create Open Data Project started by the Whitehouse is a good example of being specific is a productive way to talk about how to open data:
http://project-open-data.github.io/

BB: Positive steps are being taken within government IT in the Twin Cities, especially in Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Earlier this year, Minneapolis IT put up a public, GIS data portal. MetroGIS is championing open data policies for GIS departments in the 7 county metro, and they recently made a successful bid to change Minnesota law so that government entities have to share GIS data with other government entities at no cost.

Still, there are a lot of hurdles. Minnesota law often requires government entities to charge the public data access fees. In many governments, data governance and access is taken care of by whichever department houses the data, which means requesting or advocating for open data involves navigating an arcane bureaucracy. Even government employees have a hard time accessing the data of other departments. And while the Data Practices Act does provide access to government held information, it does not do much to promote making that data available through the digital standards and tools that define much of modern life and society.

There are also practical hurdles to deal with. For departments that do not have publicly accessible digital data, or governments that are not yet coordinating the data platforms of their departments, the projects that will address these issues can be expensive. Fortunately, as time goes on, this will become less of an issue as governments undertake these projects on their own. Plus, there is plenty of low-hanging fruit – data that is already digital and ready to be opened.

Are there people opposed to the idea of more open data?

AP: In theory, not really.  Open data is essentially about transparency, accountability, and public resources and almost anyone can get behind that. There are issues of implementation. There can be privacy concerns and there can be some pretty heated debates about that topic.  Shifting workflows to include releasing, structured, open data requires resources, which can be hard to find, especially for government agencies.  There is often a chicken/egg problem where governments want to open data, specifically datasets that will be used, but on the flipside it can be very hard to know what data government agencies collect and how it might be useful without seeing it.

BB: This is a surprisingly tough question to answer. Certainly, we hear concerns directly and indirectly from various groups. I don’t think these concerns rise to the level of opposition, and they are often justified concerns regarding privacy and liability. That said, these concerns sometimes mark the end of a discussion on data access instead of initiating a discussion on how to address those concerns.

We also hear of government departments that are overly protective of the data they house. Again, it seems this protectiveness often comes from privacy and liability concerns, plus the practical fact that most government entities are strapped for time and money. I guess the answer is that we don’t hear much direct opposition to the idea of open data, but we do run into significant road blocks when we talk about implementing open data.

Where do you think Minnesota stands in the spectrum of open data policies?

AP: We are pretty mid-level, in my opinion.  We have some really positive state laws, but there are few agencies or local governments embracing and fully implementing open data practices.  GIS-heavy agencies, like the DNR and MetroGIS have been very progressive about open data for some time. I think there are people in and outside government that are poised to make some really great changes.

BB: Minnesota’s stance isn’t great. In the 90s, Minnesota was a national leader in e-government and data access. Unfortunately, we’re now average to below average by most open data measures. For example, Minnesota received a C last year for openness of spending data, while the City of Minneapolis received a D- on the same issue earlier this year. On legislative transparency, the state was received a C earlier this year.

What can the reader do to get involved with Open Data Twin Cities?

AP: Check out our website: http://www.opentwincities.org/

You can join our mailing list or sign up for our monthly meetings.  Or look out for hackathon events coming up.  Open Twin Cities is about technology, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a coder to be involved.
BB: Check out opentwincities.org, come to one of our meetups, and join the Open Twin Cities Google Group. It doesn’t matter what your skills are; there is plenty for everybody to do in the group and on specific projects. And we’re not just talking about coders. Everybody has something to contribute.

Also, talk to your elected officials. Action from the City Councils – specifically resolutions and ordinances – is one of the best outcomes we can work towards regarding open data in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

BB: We’ve penciled in November 9th for CityCampMN 2013 – an unconference focused on issues of technology, governments, and community. We’re also planning to hold a one day hackathon the following day, November 10th. So follow @opentwincities and look out for more details on these events.

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