OpenSATX: Data For The People, By The People

San Antonio’s Code for America Brigade, dubbed OpenSATX, got off to a robust start on Saturday at CodeAcross, held at Rackspace headquarters. About 50 participants, comprising city staff, Rackers, Geekdom members, students, and other engaged citizens gathered to spend the day discussing how the city can better open its data to new and innovative applications to serve residents and businesses in San Antonio.

A Code for America Brigade is a local organization formed as part of – sometimes as a precursor to – a city’s participation in Code for America. San Antonio’s three CfA Fellows are here to work on projects they identify with city staff and citizen input, but their availability is limited to one year.

The Brigade is comprised of local volunteers, including myself as the Brigade’s storyteller, who build on the work of the CfA Fellows, continually innovating and developing new projects. Some of these projects may be picked up for use by city departments; others may find life as independent projects, while others may simply serve as experiments or prototypes for other development.

“The Brigade network is an continuing effort to deploy, maintain and sustain civic technology and open data infrastructures. Each Brigade is comprised of local volunteers and government employees who connect for regular hack nights, discussions, and app development.”

In cities with well-established Brigades, CodeAcross usually takes the form of a “hackathon” where folks come together to create new apps in a day-long, or even weekend-long marathon of coding that results in actual new applications. This being the inaugural event in San Antonio, our CodeAcross was used as a platform to launch the Brigade and provide input to CfA Fellows and city staff.

CodeAcross 2014 took place 47 cities, From Atlanta to Zagreb and, of course, San Antonio. Though heavily concentrated in the US, CodeAcross events also took place in South America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Australia, demonstrating the global nature of the open data movement.

The City’s Chief Technology Officer Hugh Miller and Information Technology Services Department Deputy Director Kevin Goodwin both attended CodeAcross. They were joined by several department heads from the City’s IT department, all of whom participated in breakout sessions in which participants shared ideas for the kinds of data they’d like to have access to and what kinds of applications could be built on the datasets.

At one point during the meeting, Catherine Bracy, Director of Communications for Code for America, shared the example of a project completed by the Boston Code for America Fellows: DiscoverBPS, a portal simplifying Boston Public Schools’ complex registration matrix.

As a city that offers school choice and has 135 schools from which to choose, Boston had been publishing a 32-page guide, listing the location, eligibility requirements and other criteria for each of its schools. Parents were left to sift through all of this data manually to find the best school choices for their kids.

“Factors like school location, admissions quotas and sibling attendance can impact a student’s eligibility. Meanwhile, features like test scores, historical admissions data, and transportation options can fit more or less perfectly with a parent’s preferences and expectations.

“DiscoverBPS combines eligibility criteria, school data, and advanced mapping tools to help parents search for and compare their top choices.”

Now, instead of manually sifting through 32 pages of data, parents can visit the DiscoverBPS website, plug in some basic information and be presented with a list of schools for which their child qualifies, along with suggestions for which ones might offer the best fit.

An app developed for the City of New Orleans might be of particular interest to San Antonio. Civic Insight “offers residents up-to-date information on the status of underutilized properties in their community.”

Regular readers of this website know that urban development is a key interest at The Rivard Report and just last week several articles were published discussing different perspectives on the challenges of downtown revitalization and urban renewal, including a piece by Robert Rivard about vacant “Ghost Buildings” peppering the downtown area. Civic Insight seems to be tailored to the needs of this ongoing discussion.

“Civic Insight is an easy-to-use, public website that connects directly to internal government data systems to make information about the status of vacant or underutilized spaces available to the public in real-time.

“With Civic Insight, residents and local orgs can search for a property on a map and learn about its ownership, inspection, and permitting history, and subscribe to receive real-time notifications about its progress.”

As city officials and the Code for America Fellows listened, participants first tossed about ideas for Goals and Strategy, answering questions like:

  • What have you always wanted to know about the city?
  • What types of city data would you find interesting?
  • What problems in the city should we be addressing?

In a second breakout session, Getting Actionable & Ideas for Applications, participants built upon the ideas from the first session to come up with some concrete application ideas.

Groups reported back with six specific ideas for development, including:

  • A one-stop dashboard for urgent information such as aquifer levels, electricity alerts, burn bans, road closures and other information currently spread out across numerous city sites.
  • Making restaurant and food inspection data easily accessible and searchable, possibly even connecting the data to Yelp reviews of restaurants.
  • A cloud-based calendar for events happening in the city, possibly with a tie-in to 311 to make reporting and responding to event-related issues more efficient.
  • An open-budget app to show what the city is spending on what, with tools to allow the user to model the effects changes in the budget might have. For example if $X were to be cut from the education budget, #Y schools would have to be closed.
  • A “San Antonio Answers” website, starting with the top 10 frequently asked questions from each of the city’s 34 departments and publishing the answers on this site. If successful, an “answer-a-thon” could be held to build the base of questions and answers.

OpenSATX leadership includes Captain Glen Campbell and co-Captain Kyle Rames, both of Rackspace, and myself. Follow the progress of OpenSATX or join the effort by connecting on Facebook, Twitter or via our mailing list.

originally published on The Rivard Report