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From Debt to Data: Detroit Launches Open Data Portal

The city, which emerged from bankruptcy last year, has received a grant from the Socrata Foundation that will allow it to publish data on finance, crime, economic development and blight remediation.

When the city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy on July 18, 2013, It was the largest municipality to do so in U.S. history. Debt was at more than $18 billion. The media described the catastrophe not as a breaking disaster but as an unavoidable fate.

“You could see the writing on the wall,” Terence Tyson, a city worker, told The New York Times. And his remark was echoed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who assessed the calamity as “the only viable option” for a problem “six decades in the making.”

Yet today, Detroit’s run of hardships appear to be on the wane. On Dec. 14, 2014, the city officially declared itself out of bankruptcy. And while struggles remain, Detroit is showing glimmers of a rebirth. Businesses are returning to its downtown and the unemployment rate continues to fall from 23 percent in 2010 to 16.9 percent in 2013, and will be lower in 2014, once it's officially calculated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The city's momentum will be pushed in part by its first open data portal, “Detroit Open Data.”

“This is the first step in a very long journey, and perhaps it’s the hardest part,” said Beth Niblock, Detroit’s CIO.

Detroit’s Department of Technology has teamed up with the open data portal provider Socrata to receive the first technology grant awarded from the company’s recently established Socrata Foundation, which provides Socrata’s technologies, talent and practices to data-minded organizations serving the public good.

The grant covers the launch and service of Detroit’s portal for the next three years and Niblock envisions it as critical foundation for the city’s data and transparency endeavors.

“We know that we’ll have city financial transactions online in the next four to six months, data sets that are especially helpful for a city that’s gone through the experience we’ve gone through,” Niblock said.

Socrata’s aid arrives during a time of tight budgets and watchful restraint. After the bankruptcy, Detroit was put under a strict reorganization plan, a policy that permits the city to waive $7 billion of its debts, yet limits spending to $1.7 billion spread across 10 years. For the city's IT needs, $100 million is already slated for critical IT infrastructure. And though valuable, open data projects might be seen as a luxury at a time like this.

“Now in 2015 it’s indisputable that open data creates economic development,” said Socrata Founder Kevin Merritt. “But given the circumstances, given the bankruptcy, given they lacked the resources to do it in a more conventional way, we said ‘Let’s see if we can be part of Detroit’s path to recovery.”

To balance the city’s open data needs with budgetary contraints, the Socrata Foundation collaborated to publish Detroit Police Department crime reports on an hourly basis, building and trade permits information daily and blight remediation data every week. In an effort to bring open data closer to city practices, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan coupled the portal with the city’s first open data policy.

The policy sets in motion an initiative to publish all public city data on Detroit Open Data, establish a task force for implementation and requires departments to comply by assigning a liaison to coordinate data efforts.

“Providing access to information is one of the most important things we can do to keep the public’s trust and establish a sense of accountability within city government,” Duggan said in a release. “Today is an important first step in that direction.”

More technology grants are slated for 2015. Merritt estimates the foundation will award roughly 10 to 12, about one per month. Socrata has three groups of products available for grants: open data portals, state and municipal performance dashboards and a new suite of financial transparency apps to visualize and decipher budgets. Without a quota on the grants, Merritt said it’s possible the numbers will grow in coming years.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if it grew to 25 or 50 grants a year in a few years' time,” Merritt said.

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.