Open data efforts are cropping up all over the country. Cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco are engaged in high-profile initiatives to make as much data as possible available to citizens to be as transparent as they can and to encourage decision-making motivated by a true, accurate picture of city life.

Readily accessible information is proving valuable fodder in the developer community as well. Municipal hackathons routinely challenge programmers to leverage government data to inform the next great app residents will grow to depend upon. The momentum behind open data continues to build in larger governmental bodies at the county and state levels too.

Open Data Spreads in the Desert Southwest

Tucson is the second largest city in Arizona, with a population of more than 500,000, and nearly 1 million in its metropolitan area. Andrew Greenhill, chief of staff to Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, in an interview with Government Technology, described a city where the public is interested in many types of government data to help improve quality of life.

Greenhill, along with other local advocates who are passionate about the potential of open data, have been meeting locally for a couple of years now. Their organization, called Open Tucson, got a shot in the arm on May 22, with an official go-ahead from the mayor and council to formulate a strategy to make an open data portal a reality.

A board member of  Code for America,Greenhill feels strongly that making data available to the public will drive improved government decision-making. “I really do believe that we can use technology to make government more efficient, more transparent and more collaborative,” he said. “If we can strategically pursue these types of initiatives, we can do a better job serving our citizens now and into the future.”

Many commonalities exist among the types of data that cities make available. Tucson officials are working on making transit data — like bus routes and schedules — available in machine-readable format. Details on business permits and licenses, and development project status are also in demand. At a recent meeting seeking public input on the new portal, citizens also revealed an interest in information on non-emergency calls for things like potholes, graffiti and abandoned vehicles in their area.

In Tucson, as in many other cities, most of this information is currently available to the public. But it may not be easy to find, and therefore particularly useful, to the Web-browsing public. And the goal with many open data initiatives, as in Tucson, is to make the data available in as close to real time as possible.

Environmental Data Sets

Greenhill pointed out that evidence of regional differences in open data initiatives can be significant. In Tucson, for example, residents look for environmental data on water conservation. While best practices gleaned from other municipal open data implementations across the country are helpful to Tucson, officials hope to also leverage lessons learned from peer cities that are more likely to share an interest in regional issues.

Conversations with other public-sector agencies in the area should help ensure a more robust set of information for the people of Tucson. Pima County, the Pima Association of Governments (PAG), Tucson’s University of Arizona and other partners are on board to contribute formatted data to the portal for public consumption.

“Citizens don’t draw the jurisdictional lines in the sand the way governments often do,” Greenhill explained. “They don't want to have to go to two separate websites to get two different data sets. They ought to be able to get them in one single place.”

In Tucson, the target date to launch the open data site is the end of 2012. Greenhill says the city is capable of leveraging its resources to meet that timeline.

“Opening data to each other and to the community increases the value of that data tremendously and that's good for each institution and incredibly good for the community,” he concluded.

Noelle Knell, Assistant Web Editor Noelle Knell  |  Managing Editor

Government Technology managing editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of marketing and communications experience, writing about public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she graduated from the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and @GovTechNoelle on Twitter.