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Houston Mayor's 'Open Data' Policy Aims to Unleash Public Information

Two hackathons and a few dozen app ideas later, the city still requires formal public information requests to release many popular records and has no set processes to decide which data can be freely released or how to keep it up-to-date.

Houston leaders in the last year or so have cheered the promise of "civic hacking," pushing to make the mountains of data the city collects accessible to tech enthusiasts capable of building programs to help citizens better understand and interact with their government.

Two "hackathons" and a few dozen "app" ideas later, however, the city still requires formal public information requests to release many popular records and has no set processes to decide which data can be freely released or how to keep it up-to-date.

Officials and local programmers alike hope a new "Open Data Policy," enacted as an administrative procedure by Mayor Annise Parker late last month, will change that. The policy mandates citywide cooperation with a task force that will decide what to release and how to keep it up-to-date. The procedures also require all future city technology contracts to allow for the free release of records in a useful format, such as a spreadsheet rather than a PDF.

"Right now we have a coalition of the willing," said city Finance Director Kelly Dowe. "We're trying to create broad participation. It's encouraging now that every department in the city had representation on the creation of this. What you see here is a level of commitment, by signing off on this, to work with the administration and put this data forward."

It would be inexact, perhaps, to highlight this "coalition of the willing" or reveal the departments being territorial with their records; some collect more information than others, and some have more antiquated records systems than others.

Jeff Reichman, a principal at consulting firm January Advisors, said the quality and relevance of the datasets are what matter, not the volume. Still, gaps are noticeable: The city's existing Open Data Portal, launched for the hackathons, shows the planning department boasts 48 datasets and the regulatory department 21, while the municipal courts and the city's airport system each has posted one. The portal holds information on everything from code enforcement violations and taxis to alcohol permits and radioactive waste sites.

The new policy calls for an advisory board to be formed within 30 days and to have open data standards drafted within 90 days, guiding all city departments in complying with the directive. The task force, Dowe said, will start by identifying the information citizens are most interested in and how best to unleash it.

Reichman, who helped organize the hackathons, said the city's decision to freely release records is crucial but said even more exciting is the mandate to target the information citizens most want. The hackathons were only a snapshot of what can be built when people can use live data to pursue their own ideas continuously, he said.

"We've been very reactive to what City Council has put out there to try and curate the right projects and build the right apps that can be useful," he said. "When we can strategically release popular datasets and put it in the hands of citizens, great things can happen. It gives highly engaged citizens a direct channel to talk to the city and say, 'I want to see X,' and be able to do something with that data."

Apps made live so far include one that lets citizens interact with the city budget, understanding trends over time and where tax dollars go. Another helps residents see how calls for service are generated and answered.

Other implemented or proposed ideas include an interactive map of blighted properties, an app that maps cyclists' travel routes and sends the data to the city so planners can decide where to create bike lanes, and a tool providing easier access to restaurant inspection reports.

Councilman Ed Gonzalez, a key backer of the hackathons and other technology initiatives, said the policy may lead to more data-driven decisions and, as the city approaches several years of projected deficits, more ideas about where to find savings.

"We've taken a more methodical approach to this, scaling up," he said. "Ideally, it could be a more robust rollout, but I think since it's a paradigm shift to some extent you have to start getting buy-in. Seeing the success we had around the hackathons and seeing that there was interest in the community, then you start getting buy-in."

Building that kind of momentum will require the city's existing portal to be refreshed automatically, Dowe said, as app-builders today are hamstrung by stale information.

"When you look at what other cities have seen who do have fresh, open data - not like some of ours where you go out and it's 2013 data - it's exciting what they get," Dowe said. "Why sit there and make people ask if we've already established that it's the citizens' right to have it and you're already spending time and money and effort putting it out there or reassembling it every time somebody asks you for it? Why not just build a quick program that pushes it out on the portal?"

©2014 the Houston Chronicle