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sigs_OpenDataWhen Philadelphia’s open data director, Mark Headd resigned last month, it prompted questions about the city’s commitment to transparency and open data. This week, perhaps in an effort to reinforce that commitment, the city announced the launch of a new website for city contracts.

For now, the site only includes professional services contracts for work that ranges from water to information technology to health and human services. These contracts are usually awarded for a term of one year, and are issued by various city departments with the Finance Department overseeing the entire process. You can read about the other requirements of professional services contracts here.

The city says it expects to include contracts for non-professional services, supplies and equipment, and construction at a later time. So you’re not going to see any toilet paper suppliers or janitorial contracts with the current release. And the data only covers contracts from April 1, 2013 until December 31, 2013. If you’re looking to go further back, AxisPhilly posted eight years of no-bid government contracts.

Essentially what we are seeing is a series of data dumps in comma-delimited format. So what does the data on the new website tell us? The data amounts to quarterly releases of current active contracts for professional services. You can see the vendor name, the total amount of the contract, and how much has been paid on the contract. The most important column to pay attention to is the last column, according to Robert Cheetham, founder and president of Azavea. Most contracts for professional services are up to a certain amount, and oftentimes the full amount isn’t used. So the last column is important in terms of the amount of money actually paid to the vendor.

“I think this represents a good faith effort to get more contracting information out into the hands of the public,” Cheetham said. A quick scroll through the data showed that all of the city’s contracts with Azavea, as of the end of those quarters, were listed and accurate, he said. Cheetham complimented the city for good explanations in its cover documents, including caveats in the data and “providing a flavor of what’s possible.” To this end the city has given an overall picture of the contracts, breaking them down by department, type and vendor. At the same time, Cheetham said the city has provided the “chance for others to start looking at the data and start to ask questions.”

Though he would like to see one additional data element: some indication of location where the money was spent.

I’m a geographer so I immediately want to make a map,” Cheetham said.