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By and large, the administration has followed through on that promise, releasing 68 new datasets so far and becoming something of a national model in the process.
But in recent months, the city’s commitment to open data is being tested, and tension between the city’s open data champions and departments reluctant to share their data more widely is spilling into public view.
“On the low hanging fruit, we’ve always been able to work to a consensus,” city Managing Director Richard Negrin said in a phone interview. “Now we’re getting to a point where this stuff is harder and more complicated.”
At issue are two vital datasets: the city’s property assessment records, and the property tax balances owed on those properties (tax delinquency data, essentially). The datasets controlled by the Office of Property Assessment and the Department of Revenue, respectively.
Both departments have been highly scrutinized in recent years by the press, the public at large and other branches of government. And both departments appear to be resisting Chief Data Officer Mark Headd’s calls for their respective datasets to be made readily available to the public.
According to a public log of the city’s data projects maintained by Headd, the OPA data has been available for broader release since late October. The Revenue data is also set to go, Headd said in a phone interview on Wednesday.
One of the posts, written in the form of an advice letter to data officers in other cities, suggests open data advocates not “become close or chummy with elected or appointed officials.”
“It makes it more difficult to have the hard conversations when they’re needed. Some confrontation and uncomfortable meetings, where you remind people of their obligations under an open data policy, are inevitable.”
In a group phone interview with other city officials on Wednesday, Headd was more circumspect.
“What I wanted to share with my peers in other cities that there’s a certain amount of frustration that I think is inherent in the job,” Headd said. “What the mayor has charged us with doing is hard change, and it takes longer then maybe you’d like it to …. but we believe we’ll be successful.”
For the less technically inclined, the sticking point between Headd’s position and that of Revenue and OPA might seem to be a minor one.
Headd proposes making that data available in bulk, giving users the ability to download all property data and tax balance data at once. He’s also created APIs for the data, which are tools that give third party developers real-time access to datasets.
In the world of open data, APIs and regularly updated bulk downloads are considered the gold standard in transparency and openness.
“If the data is public to begin with, what you’re talking about with downloads and APIs is creating convenience and easier access for citizens, journalists and businesses,” said Robert Cheetham, CEO of Azavea, a Philadelphia-based data analysis firm that relies heavily on public databases to build sophisticated public-interest products.
“This is about the new kinds of capabilities that become possible when the data is available outside of government.”
It is also about accountability. Enhanced access to data produced by city agencies makes it easier for journalists and watchdog groups to determine if city agencies are doing their jobs well.
“Taxpayers deserve access to this information, particularly when the city puffs its chest out about its open data process,” said Ellen Kaplan, vice president of the Committee of Seventy, a city government watchdog.
In the interview Wednesday, Negrin repeatedly described the holdups in the data releases as “natural growing pains” that accompany any “major change initiative.”
And he pushed back against the notion that there was any walking back of the administration’s commitment to open data.
“The mayor is the most impatient of all of us. He’s the driver of this, it’s important to him, he believes in it, there’s 100 percent support for being open with data and transparent,” Negrin said.
In the case of the OPA and property tax data, Negrin said that further review was needed. The data “owners” – OPA and Revenue – have “an important voice here,” Negrin said.
“They get to weigh in on the data quality. What are the legal considerations? That process is ongoing,” Negrin said.
The mayor would be the “final arbiter” in any irresolvable disagreement over a data release, Negrin said.
“The truth is there’s a great story here that we’re really proud of. The City of Philadelphia has never been more transparent, never been more open,” Negrin said. “We’re going to keep pushing that.”
No Revenue or OPA officials were available for immediate comment yesterday, with the city closed by the snow.
It is not entirely clear what legal or privacy objections the departments may have to broader release of the data. All the records in question are already publicly available in a more limited form, and the larger datasets can be acquired by filing a right to know request or, in the case of OPA, by purchasing a disk with the data.
And some data enthusiasts have taken to writing programs that “scrape” property and tax balance records from city websites, a practice that puts a heavy burden on city servers.
So the data can be had, for the relative few who know how to get it.
For open data evangelists like Headd, that’s not enough. He wants data not just to be “public,” but “open.”
Headd argues that making data open leads to improved internal operations of government. “Open data can make such an operational improvement a reality – by making data more accessible and more usable for the public, governments also make data more usable by their own operating units,” Headd wrote.
He has yet to convince at least some city departments of that. But judging by his blog posts, Headd seems to think pushing the boundaries of transparency is part of his job description.
“You should be a little nervous – at all times – that you may have pushed too hard and the city fathers will grow weary and decide that you’re (sic) services are no longer needed,” he wrote. “If you don’t feel that way, you’re probably not pushing hard enough.”
Follow Patrick Kerkstra on Twitter @pkerkstra.
Editor’s Note: AxsiPhilly curates the web site OpenDataPhilly and Axis Director Tom Ferrick and Mark Headd are members of its Board of Advisers.