Mark Headd on Open Data and digital civic-mindedness

As Philadelphia forges ahead into the 21st century, I felt it necessary to take a moment and ask Mark Headd, Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia some poignant questions about how he's not just evangelizing technology - but how he's helping foster a sense of community and helping citizens participate in the digital transformation of a city.

John: Your current role is Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia. What does that mean and what you do?

Mark: The primary function of the Chief Data Officer is to oversee the development and implementation of the Mayor’s government transparency plan. Providing easier access to the data that government collects and maintains is an important component of larger transparency effort. In addition to that, my job is to act as a sort of “matchmaker” between data producers inside government and data consumers outside government. The City of Philadelphia is looking for ways to partner with the local business, technology and entrepreneurial communities to identify creative new solutions to the problems facing our city. This is one of the underpinnings of our Open Data Program, but it's also a value that helped shape our StartUp PHL program and is encapsulated in our application for the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ [Mayors Challenge]. Open data is a key building block on which civic solutions can be built.

J: You came on board in your role as CDO just this year. Coming into this position, did you have a list of objectives in mind you wanted to target for completion by the end of your first year? Are there any immediate issues you see that need to be corrected sooner rather than later?

M: The Executive Order that created the position of Chief Data Officer has some very specific deliverables in it – things that are meant to put in place the basic “plumbing” to support open data in Philadelphia. Policies, processes, standards – the things that make large organizations run.

But beyond that, what needs to happen in our city government (and everywhere else for that matter) is a change in the culture within government about our data. Cities generate tremendous amounts of data through almost everything they do – thinking about data as a strategic resource is new to most people inside government. Governments traditionally view themselves as solution providers – the ones that make the applications that people use to get the services and information they need.

Over time, I believe that this view will change and governments will assume a role that is closer to that of “data steward.” In the same way that the widespread adoption of the Internet in the 90’s forever altered the way that government’s provide services to their citizens, open data will have a similarly “disruptive” effect on governments.

J: How different is your role in Philadelphia government as compared to your previous jobs with the States of Delaware and New York? Do you draw a lot on your past experiences with state government as you work for a local municipality now?

M: My role in Philadelphia is definitely different than my previous tour of duty in government. There wasn’t an open data movement 10 years ago when I last worked in the public sector.

When I left government 10 years ago, I wanted to work as a professional software developer – I was lucky enough to be able to do that, and I was gradually drawn into the world of startups and civic hacking. I worked for several different technology companies, and spent some time at a startup based in San Francisco called Voxeo Labs focusing on real-time communication technologies. I also worked for a “civic startup” based in San Francisco called Code for America which has a close relationship with the City of Philadelphia.

I had been involved in the local technology scene for a while and I helped organize a few civic hacking events here like Apps for SEPTA. Several months ago, I was involved in a discussion with Adel Ebeid (the City’s CIO) and was talking about ways to use open data to generate value for the city, and he said – “those are good ideas, you should come work for the City and help us do those things…” After some thought, that’s exactly what I did.

J: The term “hacker” has a widespread negative connotation since 1986. Can you explain why people shouldn’t cringe when they hear the term “civic hacking” and what exactly it means?

M: The popular media remains confused about the term “hacker” – hackers are the good guys, not the bad guys.

Hackers are people that enjoy problems, and excel at it. As a city, we face many challenges and there is a growing awareness that we need the help of people outside government to fix chronic urban problems. Civic hackers are people that want to find the solutions to problems in their communities.

Civic hacking is volunteerism of the future.

J: I took some time to look at your contributions on your blog Civic Innovations. It seems you place a lot of emphasis on the construct of open data. What does it mean for local government transparency with open data? What benefits should average citizens expect to gain from the City of Philadelphia’s commitment to transparency and openness of information?

M: Most people are surprised when they learn how many of the decisions they make every day are powered by open data.

When you go to weather.com to see if it will rain that day, or what the temperature will be…
When you launch an iPhone application to see when the next SEPTA train will leave from Market East Station…
When you fire up your Garmin to get turn by turn direction in your car to your next appointment…

These are all examples of how we can make better decisions in our lives using open data.

The national weather service publishes open weather data. Transit agencies like SEPTA release schedule and route data for their lines. Location data from the GPS satellite system is also open. This lets companies large and small build this data into their products and services, allowing us to check the weather, the status of our train or our position on the planet in any number of different ways. In a nutshell, open data powers better decision making in the lives of almost everyone.

Think about all of the other opportunities open government data could provide to empower better decision making in our lives:

What is the best school to send my children to?
What is the value of my home relative to neighboring homes?
What is the air quality in my neighborhood?
Where is the closest day care center, library, rec center or public park to where I live or work?
Where can I go to buy fresh food with SNAP benefits?
Where do I go to vote?

The benefit of our new open data policy is that it sets up a framework for publishing the kinds of data that can enable better decisions. This kind of data is also very often ideal for delivery on smart phones, and even older mobile phones that only do text messaging. This is important for a city like Philadelphia where digital access is a challenge in some parts of our city.

This also benefits our local economy, because an integral part of how the policy will be implemented will include outreach to the local technology and entrepreneurial community to encourage them build new products and services with our data.

J: What objectives have you accomplished to-date with respect to your office’s goal of greater transparency through data openness?

M: We’ve actually accomplished a lot, and we’re right on the cusp on announcing some really exciting stuff. I don’t want to steal the thunder from our upcoming announcements, but there is some really cool stuff coming soon. Stay tuned!

J: What city services could benefit the most from open data? Are there any services that already use open data to provide valuable information to citizens?

M: One of the priorities we have as part of our open data effort is to specifically target data that has a high value for the people of Philadelphia - these are the kinds of data sets that we’ll look to release early.

Another good source of information on the kinds of data that people want comes from last year’s Open Data Race (I worked as an organizer for the effort). Some of the data sets that were identified open data race have since been released by the City – others will be released in the weeks and months ahead.

J: How would you encourage those citizens who aren’t tech savvy to participate in the Open Data movement?

M: Let your government officials know you care about data. When people tell us, I need this data because it makes it easier for me to find a parking space, or it will help me to decide what school to send my child to, it helps us figure out how and why we should do this work.

Also, look at what open data already exists. If it’s important to you and it touches your life, use it to make something. You don’t have to build an app, you can load a dataset into a Google spreadsheet and build a chart or other data visualizations. If the format of the data isn’t accessible to you, tell us.