Open Data: Roots, Impact, and Promise

Here’s the full text and slides from a talk I gave this morning at The White House Open Data Innovation Summit.


Hello. I’m stoked to be here on this special day. A day when so many of us, colleagues from all across the country, can come together and take stock. To share our victories, and tell our stories to each other, and figure out how to do better. I really look forward to hearing the speakers and watching the panels the seeing the great work being done in the Solutions Showcase.

I want to help frame our narrative— talk a bit about the roots of our movement, kick off some thinking about the impact we’re having, and suggesting paths forward in this time of change.

I’m from Chicago, so I’m going to give some examples from nearby. You can find them everywhere you are, if you look, and listen. I would really love to see everybody from all of the great centers of open data in this country try this exercise of finding three place-root examples near you.


In the early 20th century, in Chicago, Jane Addams created the first “settlement house” in the US— cooperative residences for middle-class “settlers” in predominantly immigrant neighborhoods that aimed to reduce inequality. She was a prominent reformer and social worker. She was also a tireless scholar who studied the geographical distribution of typhoid fever and found that it was the working poor who suffered most from the illness. She created data and she shared it and she made lives better.

slide04In the late 60s, Gale Cincotta, a community activist from the Austin neighborhood of Chicago, a regular Chicago resident, got into public life because of overcrowding in the schools of her six children. She led the national fight for the US federal Home Mortgage Disclosure Act of 1975, which required financial institutions to provide mortgage data to the public. She forced the publication of the critical data that showed what we knew for decades— that redlining was a racist scourge on our city, and our country.slide05In the 1980s, in Chicago, disability rights activists began agitating on public transportation for what led to the Americans With Disabilities Act. The consent decree for one lawsuit, Access Living v. Chicago Transit Authority, required the installation of GPS in each bus so that each stop could be announced automatically, without the driver calling it out. They were inadvertent data advocates, and you can string a direct line from those GPS receivers in those buses, to the General Transit Feed Specification that drives so many apps today.

Everyone in this room has some more personal story about they got started in open data. I want to hear yours. I started off in municipal data. June 1998, the day after Michael Jordan sunk his last shot as a Chicago Bull, I started as a plain old web project manager/ strategist/ sales type person.

slide07One of our clients was the City of Chicago. I learned the ways of ETL and Hansen and ESRI and mainframes and I loved it. It was stunning to see database exports in the course of my work. I saw all of us in there— everyone from our big oblong city. So divided, so segregated, all of our experiences were in those machines, all chopped up into rows and columns. And I wanted to put it all back together, to be whole.

slide08Adrian Holovaty created in May 2005, and he attempted to do that with one single dataset. It was a revelation, for all of us, I think. Reverse-engineered Google Maps, which was just 4 months old, to force dots onto their interface without an API.

So when he started EveryBlock, and I joined him, he gave me a chance to start on that assembly. In 2007 my job was to call up mayors of major cities and ask them for their data. I’d say, “Hi, can I talk to the Mayor”. Invariably, the Mayor would be occupied with other matters. So I’d say something like, I’m calling to see if I could get a list of building permits (or something that like). They’d say “sure, what address?”. I’d say, “all of them”. They’d say, “what day?” I’d say, “all of them.” This went somewhat poorly, as you can imagine, but it created demand where there was none.

slide10Carl Malamud, our primary, most important forerunner, the creator of EDGAR for open SEC data in the 1990s, invited Adrian and I to a workshop in December 2007 in Sebastopol where 30 of us wrote the “8 Principles of Open Government Data” in a weekend. A kid named Aaron Swartz was there, and many others who became my heroes. The document itself created a rationale that made sense to the mayors. We started getting traction.slide11That’s also where I first came in contact with the Sunlight Foundation, the most important nongovernmental organization in the open data movement, and the springboard for so many great careers of many of you here in this room, spearheading policy and progress from other places.


And then the Memorandum.

President Obama, a community organizer out of Chicago. In my mind he went straight from Grant Park on election night to the Oval Office, the day after inauguration, and he signed and published the “Transparency and Open Government” memorandum stating that his Administration was “committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness,” fostering a sense of transparency, public participation, and collaboration amongst the government and the American people. It’s hard to describe how that felt— seeing that our President shared our priorities.

And we are here to talk about how we are filling that promise. This is the subject of our day together.

So I’m going to run through some of my own touchstones for impact, the impact I’ve felt and helped create, and then I’ll sit down and I want to listen to you.

In 2011, I dove deeper into the movement by helping start the Smart Chicago Collaborative. It was rooted in and funded by another federal program: BTOP.

slide14My Smart Chicago colleague Kyla Williams administered the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program there. BTOP was part of the Recovery Act after the 2008 financial crisis. We spent millions of federal dollars on digital skills and broadband upgrades in public housing, libraries, and city colleges. It was an education for me— I saw firsthand that the most technical solution was worthless without connection, devices, and skills.

At Smart Chicago, we funded the largest implementation of Open311 as a Code for America fellows project with the City.

slide16We’ve pioneered new ways for public participation with the Civic User Testing Group and the Documenters program for community meetings.

slide17We helped grow the burgeoning civic tech movement— an essential partner to National Day of Civic Hacking and local groups. All using open data, set forth from the Memorandum and dozens of local ordinances, powered by Socrata data portals. It was a heady time.

slide18We’ve seen the founding and growth of USDS and 18F, which are so essential to the the path forward to continue the progress of open data and open technology.

And now I work at Ad Hoc LLC, a small software company that came out of the successful rescue effort. We design, build, and operate consumer-focused services that are fast, scalable, efficient, and usable. We deliver for clients like the VA and CMS.

slide20We are certainly in a period of change, so I’m glad we have the opportunity to come together here today. We’re on the front lines— let’s share those stories. And the front lines are not lined up with the lids of laptops and colorful stickers.

They’re made up of the people who work with immigrants on their health, and mothers who want justice, and the disabled who just want to be able to get on the bus.


Veterans who can’t access their benefits, Americans who need healthcare. The open data movement is made for them, by them.

So I guess what it all comes down to in the open data movement, like pretty much anything else in life, is love. We have to love each other more. Listen. So ya. I love you. I am so happy to be a part of this movement with you, and I look forward to hearing your stories today and talking about how we move forward, no matter what comes.


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