Called socially and culturally progressive for its impressive live music scene and vibrant mix of subcultures, Austin, Texas, is also making progress when it comes to technology. But the capital city, boasting a population of more than 800,000, is sometimes overshadowed by Houston, San Antonio and Dallas -- all larger in population and in stature.
In fact, digital security professional Lemuel Williams, who also serves as the volunteer Chair of Austin’s Technology and Telecommunications Commission, feels that on the national stage, Austin is still viewed by others as a "stepchild," operating in "catch-up" mode relative to technology.
But that perception may be changing. Last week, Google announced that Austin will join the ranks of Kansas City and Olathe, Kan., as a recipient of its ultra high-speed gigabet fiber network. (Provo, Utah, was added to this list following the Austin announcement.) City officials are optimistic about the announcement's implications, feeling it will help the city workforce operate more efficiently, and potentially help narrow the digital divide by extending high-speed connectivity to a previously underserved audience.
Austin CIO Stephen Elkins added that Google fiber is already encouraging more competition in the local marketplace. "Immediately following Google's announcement, Time Warner and AT&T both said they're working on putting out high-speed fiber as well," he explained to Government Technology. "I think it's just positive all the way around."
Transparency Gains Momentum
The Austin community has long indicated an interest in the city's use of technology. 2009 saw the formation of "Open Austin," made up of citizens who wanted to help the city use technology more efficiently. Motivated in part by the city's stalled website redesign project, the crowdsourcing group soon turned its focus toward helping the city become more transparent.
“For us, having that community involvement and interest has been the jet fuel that has helped us move forward,” said Matthew Esquibel, IT division manager over Internet services and applications for Austin. Several projects now exist, providing evidence of this forward motion.
In December 2011, Austin launched its open data portal. Located at data.austintexas.gov, the site has grown from 25 data sets initially, to where it stands today, nearing the 200 mark. Spanning multiple city departments, the site features many types of information, including restaurant inspection data, watershed information, fire station locations and crime stats.
The move toward publishing city data online represented a signficant culture shift, as it requires a commitment from department-level staff who must spend time preparing the information in standardized formats. The city's goal is to make their data as useful as possible to three primary groups: average citizens, researchers and application developers.
Demontrating the Value of Open Data
Esquibel explained that it has gotten easier to demonstrate the value of this investment in staff time. As publishing municipal data sets publicly so often does, it has led in Austin to citizens innovating and solving problems using the information, thus saving the city time and money that it might have spent on proprietary solutions.
Two codeathons hosted in Austin in 2012 produced a variety of community-oriented apps on things like bike safety and voting. But they also helped the city respond to a City Council request for a campaign finance application. A vendor developed campaign finance app was quoted at hundreds of thousands of dollars, but community app developers were able to build the foundation for the app using city data at no charge to the city.
"What we found is putting it [data] out there typically yields a positive result," Esquibel said. "We're seeing people use the data for interesting things, positive things and I think that's really helping people want to get in the game too."
Similarly, city staff wanted to buy a mobile app that provided information to residents on the city's recycling schedule. IT staff recommended publishing the data on the open data portal to encourage a community developer to build the app instead, at no charge. Good advice, it turned out, as that was precisely the result.
The city's designation as a Code for America partner city in 2012 produced a number of useful community apps as well. Prepared.ly offers localized hazard awareness and preparation information, while ATX Floods provides real-time informaiton on the status of the city's water crossings, many of which close during inclement wet weather. Straymapper simplifies the process of reuniting lost pets with their owners, providing tools for shelter staff to process lost pets more quickly, allowing them to focus resources on finding homes for animals who are truly strays.
A more transparent culture also factored into Austin Finance Online, a public checkbook of sorts, featuring detailed financial reporting information including contracts that are searchable by category, expenditures broken down by city department and purchasing instructions.
Austin is currently working on an open 311 dashboard by creating the gateway that will provide access to 311 reporting data. Calling this information a "data gold mine," the city will be better able to track and therefore improve service delivery based on citizen service requests.
"You can actually influence how decisions are made in the organization," Esquibel said. "I think that's going to be a big area of growth for the city of Austin in terms of data in general, and also in terms of data that we're making available to the public."