Boston Programmers Join International Push for Open Government Data

Originally published in Open Media Boston by Tate Williams (Staff), Feb-26-13

BOSTON - Hidden within the endless bytes of government data is information on everything from how corporations are influencing the votes of politicians, down to when the next bus will arrive.

But even if governments make data available to the public in a clear and accessible way (which is often not the case), there is still a mountain of information to process that, for citizens and government staff alike, is often far too much to approach in a useful way.

That’s the problem that Open Data Day—an annual event of more than 100 affiliated hackathons around the world that took place over the weekend, including one in Boston—hopes to tackle.

In the hackathons, a term that describes when a group of programmers get together to buckle down on coding jobs, participants worked on applications ranging from visualizations of public data, to spreading information from government websites, to just education about the importance of liberating such information.

As such public data increasing go online, citizens and governments need help accessing and making sense of it all. And while it may not be as flashy as being handcuffed to a bulldozer, activism for open data ties to social justice, how democracy functions, and can have a direct impact on quality of life.

“Just having data open in the world isn’t enough,” said Shauna Gordon-McKeon, the Boston event’s organizer. “The more people involved, the more minds that are thinking of the question of how to make society better with this.”

There’s a great deal of government information completely accessible now, she said, but knowing how to interpret it, much less act on it, can be a difficult problem.

So while participants do get actual projects started and finished during the one-day event, it’s also about making connections and getting a wider and more diverse pool of activists involved the work of freedom of information, she said.

“I tend to think hackathons are more about the experience, and a chance to meet people,” Gordon-McKeon said. For example, at the Boston event—which drew about 20 people to the Bocoup Loft, a hackerspace in the Waterfront neighborhood—attendees included hobbyists, Boston’s Data Analytics Manager Curt Savoie, Harlan Weber with nonprofit Code for America, and an employee from the U.S. Department of Labor.

A big focus at Open Data Day events is on education, and one Boston project involved developing a workshop that could be used to teach people basic technical skills related to making open government projects in the future.

The range of such projects varies, but they seem to fall into two types—use of public data to improve citizens’ lives, and analysis of government data to watchdog the powers that be.

An example of the former is a Boston project that Code for America’s Harlan Weber has been collaborating on, which seeks to better map the city’s food pantries to make it easier for donors to know where and what they can provide.

Or during the flu season, Boston reached out to other cities to find an open source application to help citizens find free vaccinations, and because of collaboration with Chicago, were able to have it up and running quickly without starting from scratch.

According Curt Savoie, attendee who works for the City of Boston, even a couple of years ago such projects and collaborations would never have been possible.

As for the watchdog category, one international project was contributing to, an open source project that originated in the United Kingdom and seeks to chart every government financial transaction in the world.

Especially ambitious efforts like this, volunteer contributions are crucial. Governments and nonprofits simply don’t have the resources to sift through the data and the code.

Event organizer James Turk heads the Sunlight Foundation’s Open States project, a web application designed to make legislature activity accessible, and said without such volunteer support, projects like his wouldn’t have even been possible.

“That is not something we ever could have done, if we didn’t realize we could get people to show up and help us,” Turk said.

In addition, gatherings like Open Data Day get weird ideas kicking around that can turn out to be revealing, he said. For example, the Capitol Words project tracks the frequency of words or phrases spoken in legislative sessions, and has become a unique way to look at Congress’s activity (try searching “women,” “abortion,” “Obamacare,” or “socialism,” for example).

To get involved in open data activism in Boston, or just to learn more about government data in general, visit Open Government Boston’s meetup siteBoston’s Code for America group, or the Sunlight Foundation.