Category Archives: Open Data

Popularity + Impact in Volunteer Movements: Alcoholics Anonymous, Poetry Slams, and the Path to Impact for the Civic Innovation Movement

Here’s a presentation I’m giving here later today.


Hi, I’m Dan O’Neil, and I want to talk to you about popularity and impact in software. All of us here are somehow a part of the civic innovation sector of the technology industry, which has largely been a volunteer-driven movement.


There are some lessons to be had by looking at other volunteer-driven movements. Specifically, I want to dive in a tiny bit into other movements that I’ve seen up-close, first-hand, because the more I work in civic tech, the more I see value in these other examples.


I am a recovering alcoholic, and have been for some time. I have come to learn and appreciate this program, and it really helps me live a good life. I am also a poet. In the 1980s and 90s, I wrote books and did tours.


I considered myself— in kind of a windmill-tilting way— a member of the entertainment industry. It was a shtick. But the idea was real— that poetry should be at the center of society. And entertainment was— and still is— at the center of society.


And I am in civic tech. I made my first civic app in 1999. It was called It let people know via Wireless Application Protocol when there was a killer on the loose, and they might kill them. True story.


True story. And I’ve worked in civic tech since then. So I have experience with three separate international movements that are based on volunteer labor. Let’s take a closer look.


Alcoholics Anonymous is the most successful decentralized movement in history. There are explicitly no leaders. The whole thing is run, to this day, by principles + suggestions codified in 1939 + 1947.


The 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous have not changed since they were first written down. More than 30 million copies exist. There are dozens of groups— we might even call them “projects” based on this text— Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, Smokers Anonymous. Forked code; all of it.


The impact of this movement is widespread in the economy. A huge portion of the health industry, every self-help book. Hell, the entire 70s.


I’ve never competed in a poetry slam, but I was there at its creation. It, too, has a strict set of rules, and they are maintained over time by volunteers.


The rules specifically cover compensation, which is minimal. The winner of the Uptown Poetry Slam gets a $10 bill, presented dramatically onstage. The key is the joy of self-expression, of doing something that is special, unique.


Nearly 30 years after its creation, the poetry slam movement has achieved a certain National Poetry Month/ Sunday Styles section – level popularity. In contrast, rap & hip-hop— another sector of the entertainment industry that relies in some part of spoken word— is dominant, and generates enormous dollars.


Civic tech doesn’t really have a founding set of rules, but we’ve certainly developed routines and norms with hackathons and other volunteer / “for the civic good” programs.


We do have the 8 Principles of Open Government Data, which I helped write, in 2007. It specifically calls out the publication of data with personally identifiable information, noting (correctly) that it should not be published.


Due, in part, to the fact that there’s been little effort to re-combine personally identifiable information in our products, it’s fair to say that civic tech has generated little revenue and had little impact on culture. Meanwhile, the larger technology industry is taking over culture.


So what’s going on here? If we accept this analysis, what accounts for the vastly different impact patterns? To me, it’s a matter of framing and focus. AA is about product + service for the masses, poetry slam is about individual expression + satisfaction grown city by city.


And it’s the underlying attitude toward professionalization and commercialization that makes the difference. AA is radically indifferent— we’re focused on staying sober, not policing adherents. In contrast, the “Slam Masters” from each city that adopts the slam meet yearly. They enforce a sort of sameness that is palpable, and exclusionary.


The result is a default openness in AA. Onboarding is a breeze. People desperately want what people in recovery have— sobriety. Slams, in contrast, have complex modes of operation, full of insider references and tight networks. Above all, glorifying the singular poet with a microphone.


We have our own poets in civic tech, our own open mics, our own singular heroes. The result is separation and divorce. Meanwhile, aggressive startups, all about disruption and de-regulation, eat our lunch in our cities, building software people love.


They are popular. And through their popularity, they have impact. And we don’t make popular things. And we have to, because we’re better than everyone else. The larger technology industry needs us. Let’s make products, not projects.

Breaking Down the Homan Square Story from an Open Data History Perspective

Yesterday morning one of the most respected publications in the world, The Guardian, dropped a story bomb on Chicago: The disappeared: Chicago police detain Americans at abuse-laden ‘black site’.

As someone who has worked in the open data movement for a while, who lives and works in Chicago, this one hurts. Let’s break it down:

Continue reading Breaking Down the Homan Square Story from an Open Data History Perspective

Results of Belleville Police Department Alcohol Compliance Check

The following information was provided by the Belleville Police Department:

On Thursday January 31st 2013 the Belleville Police Department conducted an “Alcohol Compliance Check” at eleven (11) locations licensed to sell liquor in the city of Belleville. Of the locations checked three had employees who sold alcohol to a minor working with officers.

The following are the businesses that were checked and passed by refusing to sell to the minor.
Blue Agave 307 East Main St.
Centerfield Tavern 1403 East A St.
Circle K 9618 West Main St.
Circle K 10 South Belt West
Fletcher’s Kitchen and Tap 6101 West Main St.
Foley’s Tavern 7714 West Main St.
Silver Creek Saloon 2520 Mascoutah Ave.

The following businesses and their employees sold to the minor.
Belleville Quick Shop 7311 Old St. Louis Rd. Jumah A. Elhajjat w/m 29 Belleville
Shenanigan’s 6401 West Main St. Amber Hopkins w/f 29 Belleville
Circle K 2709 West Main St. Katina Scott b/f 40 Belleville

The Belleville Police Department thanks the owners and employees of the business of Belleville that remain vigilant in checking ID’s of customers purchasing liquor and refusing to sell to minors.

Nice data!

An Appreciation of Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz, an Internet freedom leader, committed suicide yesterday, January 11, 2013, in New York. On this page of his personal Web site, he gives instructions about what to do if he gets hit by a truck. One of the instructions: “Feel free to publish things people say about me on the site”.

I have some things to say about you, Aaron:

  • I always felt smaller when I was with you. You were just plain smarter than me. Your cool quiet smirk made me feel like I was catching up all the time. You knew things that I was four sentences away from knowing. Made my mind breathless.
  • Your youth made me feel paternal, and your intellect made me feel little-brother. As the father of two boys and the younger brother of six, I have a lot of experience with both. You made both those cello strings move in me.
  • You had more guts than me. An odd, rock-like purity. Hard, and impermeable. I wished I could be like that, and was also glad that I couldn’t be like that. This is not a comfortable dichotomy.
  • What really made me cry today was Larry: “We are all incredibly sorry to have let you down.”
  • I’m so thankful for what you did with your time on Earth. Thank you.


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On the Use of Private Data to Improve Lives (Five Data Sources You Can Use Now to Make a New Business)

I have long been been a proponent of open government data, and I’ve made a lot of products that use it. I’ve helped a number of cities, including my own, in publishing data and coming up with good policies.

Over the last couple years, however, I’ve turned my attention to the vast troves of private data that could be used to build businesses and make lives better. I even started a Web site called “Analycize” to hold a future project to this affect, and I have great hopes for this in the future.

I’ve written quite a bit about this and published a goodly amount of  my own data over the last year or so, and I wanted to pull it all together into one post. Here’s the info:

Hidden Personal Data and the Passionate Stories Within, focused on Illinois Tollway data

Here’s a tweet about my Chicago Transit Authority trip data and the raw data:

Here’s a pretty big one— a year’s worth of my exercise, food, and sleep activities for a year as tracked on Fitbit, a leading quantified self toolAll of that data is in this massive spreadsheet.

There are two more sources of private data that relate to my children, so I’m not super-prepared to publish the info. But they are indicative of the types of systems that contain vast data (and easy extraction) but a paucity of tools to use it to make lives better.

One is MyMealTime, which is a way for schools to manage lunch, including a Point of Sale system and and online system for viewing and managing transactions and available lunch money. Upshot: I have a record of every item each of my children has purchased for lunch since May 2007.

MealTime Online - Details

Another is my kid’s grades and other school performance data, which is managed in a tool called TeacherEase. I’ve got six years worth of this data, all of it accessible with a simple scraper.

TeacherEase- Parent Main

Open data isn’t just for governments anymore. There’s a lot of room for products here, sheeple!