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Madison, Wis., Launches Open Data Platform

Following New York City's lead, Madison passes an open data ordinance and launches an open data platform to spur civic engagement and economic development.

Madison, Wis., is changing things up -- all in an effort to promote innovation and economic growth in the city.

On Jan. 8, city officials announced the launch of its open data ordinance and a more accessible open data platform. Thus far, only one other city in the country, New York City, has implemented an ordinance mandating widespread government release of data, according to officials.

The city, officials said, is making open data projects a high priority. The new ordinance will require agencies to eventually release most of their data in raw format and make it available for download through the city's new open data Web portal.

Though the city made open data available in the past, the effort was far less comprehensive and the data was not in a format that developers could easily use, said CIO Paul Kronberger. “We recognize that this data has been created with public funds," he said, "so it rightfully belongs to the public and should be made available to the public."

Almost all city data will be made available, he said, with the exception of personally identifying information and any data prohibited to be released by existing regulations. In some cases, the city will further support software developers by providing access to APIs through the new portal, Kronberger said, and will look for opportunities to work with local developers.

Another benefit to the Web portal, Kronberger said, is that the city will field fewer formal requests for data because it will already be openly available to those who need it on the portal. Not all city data will be made available at once, but the city plans to gradually make most data available, Kronberger said.

“This is to promote transparency and the expansion of government transparency,” he said. “It also has an economic development benefit to it.”

The city has been host to hackathon events and supported organizations like Madison Startup Weekend, and this new ordinance and the resulting tools and available open data is intended to further support such efforts. Software developers and the applications they build that support government operations are generally considered a boon by government officials, taking some of the demand off government and offering more services to the public.

The initiative was spearheaded by Scott Resnick, Alder of Madison City Council's District 8, who said he's continuing to work with local developers to continue working on the project, which Resnick said is based on New York City's model. The project is impressive, he said, because Madison, a city of fewer than 250,000 residents, has far less resources than larger cities known for technology, such as San Francisco or Philadelphia. Despite that limitation, however, they were still able to pass the initiative and launch the necessary tools, he said.

“What we're doing a little bit differently is calling on more of a community development for it," Resnick said. "Many of the data sets we are releasing are sets that we know members of the community will use.” One such data set is location of fire hydrants, which one developer wanted so as to create an application that would help people dig out hydrants during snow storms.

“There are other cities that can afford to put literally everything out there,” Resnick said. “We understand we can't do that, but we can still have a very engaged tech community, even with a population of a quarter million. We're doing this pretty much as grassroots as possible. We're really engaging that private sphere and moving forward together, where they're giving us advice and we're able to give them advice, and I see that as a critical point to achieve success with this initiative.”

Photo from Shutterstock

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.