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Madison, Wis., Opens Up City Data

Civic-minded tech community drawing on a range of sources to create apps.

An open data ordinance is moving through the legislative process in Madison, Wis. Championed by Scott Resnick, an alderperson on Madison’s Common Council, the proposal seeks to codify a movement that’s gaining momentum inside and outside of City Hall. Drawing on best practices of other cities across the country, Resnick expects that the law will be approved by Mayor Paul R. Soglin and the Common Council in July or August.

While programmers already have made some impressive additions to the civic landscape in Madison, publishing city data sets in developer-friendly formats will save them time, and prevent them from having to scrape disparate data from city websites and other sources.

“The data that would be released to the public is already available to them through open records requests,” Resnick explained to Government Technology. “Let's have developers have easy access to the data itself and see the innovations that can come from it.”

Civic Apps Already Solving Problems

The emerging tech sector in Madison is poised to take advantage of new data sets the city will publish. In the meantime, they’ve been busy working on new apps to serve the public good. Developer Greg Tracy used available transit information, along with his programming skills, to solve a problem he encountered on his daily commute.

A daily user of public transit, Tracy developed SMSmyBus, which allows users to access bus schedule data via text message. Initially built using a Web-based platform for sending and receiving texts, Tracy has since developed a number of different applications to meet broader community needs.

University of Wisconsin, Madison students, Tracy explained, are a major user group, and some local businesses now have kiosks featuring the transit information. At Madison’s CityCamp event June 16, Tracy announced some impressive usage figures — 1.5 million transit requests using this tool.

The developer community is keeping its eye on civic apps coming out of other cities too. Borrowing from an open source project developed by Code for America fellows in Boston, Madison now has its own Adopt a Fire Hydrant app. The app encourages community members to “adopt” city fire hydrants, agreeing to keep them accessible to the fire department in the winter when Madison streets often have several feet of snow on the ground.

While hydrant location information isn’t yet publicly available on the city’s website, city staff produced the data for Tracy in just a couple of days — evidence, Tracy said, that city officials have bought into the benefits of open data.

“There's a cultural shift that’s taking place about the importance of doing this,” Tracy said of Madison elected officials and staff. “It’s obvious to them that if they make more [data] available, people will consume it and create apps that add value on top of it.”

Tracy has set up a website for local developers who are interested in civic projects. Energized by recent successes and the momentum created by the open data movement, the group plans to meet monthly to discuss current projects and additional opportunities to collaborate.

Leading the Way in Wisconsin

Once the city starts publishing more data, Madison leaders expect more innovation in service of city residents.

“It's the tip of the iceberg,” Resnick said, estimating that approximately 5 percent of city data has fueled current civic entrepreneurial efforts to date. “The innovation really comes when you say, ‘Here is the rest of the 95 percent of the data sets that you can work with.’”

According to Resnick, the capital city will be the first in the state to have an open data ordinance on the books. And it seems the effort is contagious. The city has gotten several inquiries from state legislators and other local communities interested in pursuing open data initiatives of their own.

“It really is a community effort that we’re seeing here in Madison — people just taking the initiative and having fun developing applications to make the city a better place to live.”


Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.