Conversations lead to innovation

This is a column about conversations. 

Usually when I write about conversations, it’s within the context of public officials having conversations when the public isn’t present or privy to them. I take umbrage at the machinations of those who devise ways to exploit loopholes, and frown at those who would value efficiency over accountability.

But not today. The conversations I’m interested in today are the ones where citizens, government and, for lack of better term, techies, are talking to each other.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “open data,” and it is what it says it is: Data (facts and statistics collected together for reference of analysis -- thank you, New Oxford American Dictionary) that is open and therefore freely and easily available for access by all.

For those of us who conjure up images of ones and zeros or rows and columns full of seemingly random numbers, data can be anything: Photos, reports, emails, tables, charts. Any public record is, essentially, data. Put a lot of those photos, reports, emails, tables or charts together and you now have a data set. Put that data set online, where anyone can come along to search it or download it, and you now have open data.

Open data promises to bring a new level of understanding and engagement with citizens. With the facts at their fingertips, they have the tools to search for something very specific, to analyze trends, discover patterns, detect anomalies and solve problems.

And government? Open data frees government from the confines of viewing records or data as something that must be asked for, processed and delivered. When data is online and easily accessible, that is (hopefully) one less FOIA request government employees have to handle.

Open data also depersonalizes the data -- that is, the data isn’t good or bad, it’s not embarrassing or inappropriate, it just is. The data is the data, nothing more and nothing less.

And when data is out there, ripe for the picking, citizens and entrepreneurs can use it to create products and services that are socially or commercially useful. If you’re trying to imagine how, think of the Virginia Public Access Project, which for years has taken data from the State Board of Elections and the Secretary of the Commonwealth (among others) to create the state’s go-to resource for all things having to do with money in politics and elections.

So, about those conversations. If the promise of open data is to be fully utilized, then people need to start talking. Government needs to find out what citizens want and need; citizens need to find out what kind of data the government actually collects and compiles.

And then there are the techies. These are the coders, the hackers -- the white-hat, civic kind eager to help their communities, not the nefarious black-hatted ones bent on mayhem and destruction. These are the folks involved in activities like Code for America or the National Day of Civic Hacking. They take the data, write code, tap into APIs, program Python, seek pull requests through GitHub (don’t worry, you don’t have to know the lingo) and come up with something innovative and useful: An app to help federal employees know if the person they’re having lunch with is a lobbyist; or a real estate website that relies on government property data.

These are incredibly talented folks with the desire to make their communities better. What they don’t always have, though, are the ideas about what either citizens or government want their data to do. So they need to talk to citizens, journalists, and professionals in the business and academic fields to learn about what problems need solutions, what circumstances need improving.

Conversations between hackers and government are also essential. Government may not realize the potential of some of their data sets. Government may need to get the word out and update individuals on a timely basis about various projects or statistics. They might need an efficient way to produce analyses and reports. Coders can help with that.

How do I know this? Me, who knows just enough HTML coding to make some words on the website in bold italics?

I know this because I saw it first hand, at VCOG’s annual conference in Roanoke on Nov. 14. We invited three civic hackers to tell our audience members a little about what they do. The idea was for them to then retreat from the rest of the conference to juggle some existing data (health inspection reports) and come back at the conference’s end with a new app that would show the so-called hot-spots where restaurant inspections were the best and the worst around the state.

Funny thing, though. People started talking. A reporter from The Roanoke Times approached one of the coders to kvetch about one of his pet peeves: When there’s been an arrest in Roanoke, he often wants to know whether the arrestee is subject to other charges in other jurisdictions. To do that, he has to go to the Supreme Court’s website, navigate to the circuit court case information system and then enter a search term for each of the 119 circuit courts online, one by one.

Easily understanding the problem, the coder set to work. Just a few hours later -- still at VCOG’s conference -- he unveiled a prototype program. Simply type in the name, and all 119 courts are searched and results are spit out. The weekend after the conference, he prettied up the user interface and put it online at, and two weeks after that, he added information from Virginia Beach, one of three jurisdictions that don’t participate in the Supreme Court’s central system.

It all began with a conversation. Hopefully not the last one, and hopefully one built on the desire of coders, citizens and government to make our communities better, safer, healthier and more transparent.

Let’s start talking!


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