Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 6, 2016

Are Cities’ Budget Woes Helping Drive Open Data?


Kraft (Photo by Flickr user Daniel X. O’Neil, used under a Creative Commons license.)

Local governments’ resources pale in comparison to what the federal government has on hand, but could that actually be helping with open data at the local level?

The way the OpenGov Foundation’s Seamus Kraft sees it, local governments are taking the lead on open data, and that’s because of a combination of budget woes, the presence of  “civic hackers” and flexibility that leaders have at the local level.

“The vast majority of innovation in producing government information is happening at the local level,” said Kraft, group’s executive director, in an interview with Technocrat.

One example of how this plays out: the smartphone apps that D.C. residents use to figure out when a bus or train will arrive. That’s all running on open data sets, Kraft said, which he describes as “machine-readable, bulk- downloadable, standardized, accepted modern format”

“The federal level has done a lot of really interesting things, but there’s still a lot of work to do as far as getting to the point where you can actually adopt this as the way that you do business,” said Kraft, a former aide to Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

One reason Kraft sees this innovation happening at the local level: money.

“Cities are the most broke and the most likely to have not just had to lay off people but … lay off core mission critical staff,” he said.

At the same time, there are people who want to help and know how. Big cities  have “vibrant civic hacking” communities — groups of coders and others who try to solve problems through technology — who are tied to specific locations, he said.

City governments have to partner up with groups like Code for America because they don’t have the staffing or the knowledge, he said. It’s somewhat of a needs-meets-surplus situation, he said.

And those groups take the technology-industry approach of starting small and scaling up. “Start small, get it right, nail it, and then add on or expand outwards,” he said.

One more reason Kraft sees local governments as taking the lead on open data: City leaders have more autonomy to make decisions, he said. That means if a project fails, it’s easy to end it and move on, he said.

Compare that to the federal government, which lacks a community of civic hackers and  projects “almost by definition” have a “top-down” approach,” he said.

“Any good software does not get built top-down,” he said.


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