Bit by bit, Tulsa may be edging into the open data revolution.
Pushing the city forward is a group of civic-minded software engineers.
"The whole idea behind open government or open data is, you know our government owns lots and lots of data. Since we own our government, it's our data," said Matt Galloway, a mobile software developer.
Instead, however, "that data stays kind of walled off in City Hall, and it's inaccessible to us," Galloway said.
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He's part of a group known as Tulsa Web Devs, which hosted a "hackathon" in 2011 focused on civic-minded projects.
Ultimately, Galloway developed an iPhone app using historical photos from the Beryl Ford collection of the Tulsa City-County Library. Users who find themselves downtown can quickly discover how the spot their standing in may have looked decades ago.
Such an app is only scratching the surface of data applications, some of which have already been brought to life as proven concepts by developers involved with a group formed to push for open data called Code for Tulsa.
Luke Crouch, a founder of the group, cited projects group members have already developed. For example, one effort tracks the destination of fire trucks headed towards the scene of an accident or other emergency. Another concept, available for view at trif.tulsawebdevs.org, publishes information about traffic and lane closures using data from the city and the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.
City Councilor G.T. Bynum is working with Crouch to develop a resolution supporting open data.
If adopted, it could be a first step in Tulsa following the path of larger cities like Chicago, New York and Charlotte, N.C.
"What I'd like to see it do is set up a working group, for one thing," Crouch said, with his goal to establish a "group of both government and citizen people working together on this kind of stuff, because so far we've had to re-explain our entire story every time we want to go to a new department and ask for data."
Crouch spoke to city councilors at a March 7 committee meeting, in which council staffer Amy Brown presented details about what other cities have done with open data initiatives.
For example, data on blighted properties led to development of blightstatus.nola.gov, a way for the public to type in a New Orleans address and check the status of a property. If a case has been filed, if an inspection has taken place, if there was a judgment against the property owner, it's all available in public view.
"We possess a tremendous amount of information here at the city, and if we can find ways to make that more accessible while maintaining confidentiality, there is a great movement nationally and internationally to utilize that in a customer service friendly way," Bynum told councilors.
Theresa Pardo, director of the Center for Technology in Government at the University at Albany, State University of New York, said the trend received a boost with President Barack Obama's open government initiative in 2009, but it's a movement that's begun to emerge worldwide.
In the United States, by 2010 and 2011, some cities began to establish open data policies, Pardo said.
"At the city level, what we're kind of seeing emerge is that the data portal, the open data is really very much focused on the idea of improving service delivery, so looking at open data portals and adapting them in very specified ways that allow for service delivery improvements rather than just quote unquote transparency," Pardo said, adding that the push often comes from private web developers who may be motivated by the potential for profit down the line.
What makes a city capable of diving into data?
To start, data must be in electronic form, Pardo said. From there, many cities have begun creating data inventories to understand what information they have available.
When it comes to data, it's about "capturing it, managing it, understanding what we have, what it's good for," Pardo said.
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Tulsa established a records manager position last April. Part of the goal is to have a more standardized approach to record keeping, rather than leaving each department to handle things differently.
Pardo said it helps to have support from an elected official, but a city must also have enough technology infrastructure in place to support such a push, which may also require funding.
Crouch said he first hoped for the city to take an aggressive approach to open data, but now doesn't mind taking things more slowly.
For one thing, the city remains without a permanent information technology director. The person who had been in the position, Tom Golliver, was reassigned and ultimately left the city after a false-alarm hacking scare last year.
The city issued letters to people warning them that data they had submitted online might have been affected, but later announced that instead of a hacker, it was a routine security test that had led to confusion.
According to city spokeswoman Michelle Allen, the city is reviewing applications from people looking to fill the role. The city's website lists nine open positions within its IT department, including two senior system analyst positions and an applications development manager position.
The city is also having a consultant, Public Consulting Group, review IT department operations, with their report expected by the end of May, according to Allen.
"I think the initial resolution draft was very aggressive," Crouch said, describing the language as something like, "'We need to publish immediately as much data as possible.'"
Crouch said he now realizes it's going to take some time for open data to really catch on with Tulsa's government.
"It's really a culture shift for the city, because in the past, I guess a lot of people have basically looked at people who request data with, if not skepticism, then at least annoyance, because it's, 'Oh I have to put together this report,'" Crouch said. But "in the long run, I think it's going to save them a lot of time and effort," he added.
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