by James A. Bacon
Michael Kolbe experienced first-hand the power of data-driven election campaigning while working on the 2012 Obama re-election team. He went on to take a job as a strategy analyst for Health Diagnostic Laboratory in Richmond but didn’t discard his idealism. Hoping to harness the power of data to solve social problems, he joined others to bring the burgeoning civic hacking movement to Richmond last year.
His first “hackathon” fizzled, Kolbe concedes. The goal was to create a “where’s my school bus” app for the City of Richmond schools, adapting open code developed elsewhere. Despite initial enthusiasm, school officials “went radio silent” and Kolbe and his compatriots didn’t have a strong enough team to push the project through. “It just fell apart.”
Learning from that inauspicious beginning, Kolbe tried again. The results of his efforts could be seen Saturday in Code for RVA’s code-a-thon held at INM United’s warehouse-chic office building in Richmond’s Scott’s Addition. This time, more than 60 participants worked on a half-dozen projects to make local government data more accessible and useful to citizens.
This time Kolbe had time to build an organization and line up sponsors and alliances. The Richmond hack-a-thon was held as part of a national CodeAcross event organized in dozens of cities across the United States by San Francisco-based Code for America. Code for America dispatched a team to help organize the Richmond event. Socrata, a Seattle-based open-data company, created a portal to which the Richmond hackers could add their data. Code for RVA also found a local champion for its open-government projects in Andreas Addison, a self-described “civic innovator” for the City of Richmond.
“This meeting wouldn’t have happened two years ago,” said Addison, who has led the effort to bring data analytics to City of Richmond decision making. “Things are changing.”
Even the governor’s office is getting on board. Zaki Barzinji, deputy director for intergovernmental affairs in Governor Terry McAuliffe’s policy shop, said the administration hopes to work with Code for America, Virginia universities, state agencies and local Code for America “brigades” like Code for RVA to organize a statewide conclave with the goal of driving open data and cultural change in state government.
Most of the projects undertaken Saturday were simple, aiming to make existing data more accessible to the public. One team worked on creating RVA Answers, a Web resource providing answers to most frequently asked questions. Another team tackled the goal of making data about city boards & commissions more readily available, including information on how to apply for a position. Yet another group worked on improving the display of city crime data.
The most ambitious project, long in the works, is an initiative to address the spread of STIs (socially transmitted infections), especially among the city’s poor and young. The city has pulled together a multi-disciplinary team to organize and analyze existing data, supplemented by insight gleaned by interviewing poor people and shadowing government health workers. The mission is to encourage people to get tested for STIs and to direct them to locations in their neighborhoods where they can do it.
This initiative will not likely wither on the vine — Danny Avula, deputy director of the city health department, is pushing the project forward. “A lot of people in government don’t get it,” Avula said, speaking of the use of data analytics. “But there are advocates now.”
Open data sounds great in the abstract, but civic hackers often face indifference or resistance. When the McAuliffe administration launched its open data portal last year, said Barzinji, it encountered a tendency among state agencies to keep their data to themselves. The administration started small, asking each agency to share at least one data set. Once the value of public data can be demonstrated, he said, he expects the agencies to loosen up.
Never under-estimate the role of simple bureaucratic inertia. Mike Walls, IT strategy manager for the City of Richmond, noted that government IT departments are focused on the core mission of “just keeping the lights on.” Top priorities are making sure payroll is met, bills are paid and basic functions work. “You can’t have the network go down. You can’t have the emergency dispatching software crash. It creates a very cautious mindset.”
In his experience, Walls said, IT bureaucrats aren’t opposed to releasing data to the public as much as they are overwhelmed by their existing responsibilities. They see the task of opening up data as more work. “When your day job grinds you down, it’s hard to find the enthusiasm.”
Another issue, said Walls, is that data can’t just be dumped willy nilly into public databases. When data reveals information about individuals, public access may raise privacy issues. Often there are technical issues as well. Data is typically compiled to the standard of “good enough for the intended purpose,” not for a purpose someone might dream up later. As a consequence, mashing up, say, land use data calibrated to difference levels of accuracy might lead to absurd results like fire hydrants appearing in the middle of a street.
But civic tech advocates expressed optimism that the obstacles can be overcome. Small victories lead to larger victories. Said Barzinji: “First what we need is the proof of concept.” Then the push for legislation and executive action can follow.