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404 Error: Why are Madison's open data and civic hacking communities almost dead?

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In January 2013, Mayor Paul Soglin and a handful of Madison city officials gathered with tech industry insiders at Sector67, a “hackerspace” on the east side of town, to herald what they thought would be the beginning of a new era for the city.

At the time, Madison was hovering in a strange place when it came to technological advancement.

The city had completely fallen off the Digital Cities Survey rankings, a national survey that ranks how cities use technology to connect citizens to local government. (In 2007, Madison was ranked 3rd for cities its size.)

But the local IT startup scene was beginning to get noticed. In 2012, Madison was ranked in the country’s top twenty “high-tech hubs” by a team that examined a variety of factors, including patents per capita and average annual patent growth.

Hoping to harness the power of that burgeoning IT startup community, with its cadre of smart computer programmers and coders, then-Alder Scott Resnick introduced an “open data” ordinance to the Madison City Council.

The ordinance would make most of the city’s data publicly available.


Because there was a growing number of Madisonians, many of them part of the burgeoning startup community, who wanted to use city data to build useful web and mobile applications.

Some of these citizens, called “civic hackers,” had already built things, like a city bus tracker and a site that mapped police and fire incident reports.

Resnick thought empowering the hackers would boost Madison’s credibility as an IT hub, engage more citizens with local government and, potentially, help the city streamline some of its operations.

Happily for the growing community of hackers — in June 2012, more than 50 of them gathered to talk shop on the UW-Madison campus — Resnick’s ordinance passed later that year.

At the January press conference at Sector67, which lauded the ordinance's passage, Soglin called the city's freshly-open data "one of many steps we'll be taking in the future.”

"It's a new image of Madison as a modernized city, a forward-thinking city," Resnick added.

And Greg Tracy, a leader in the Madison civic hacking community, said, "Release the data and wait for the creativity … the whole tech community is applauding the city right now."

But that’s not exactly what happened.

Almost exactly three years later, while other cities have built thriving partnerships between civic hackers and municipal government, Madison’s civic hacking and open data communities are almost dead.

Hackers' lives, post-ordinance

Correll Lashbrook wanted to make it easier to register your dog.

The City of Madison and Dane County require dogs and cats to be registered with the government. Prior to 2013, that process had involved quite a bit of time-consuming paperwork.

“The process itself was really clunky,” Lashbrook said.

So, he and a team of three friends, including Niko Skievaski, who went on to found Redox, a now-multi-million dollar Madison startup, got to work on PetPass, an online tool for registering pets.

While in the process of building out the web application, Lashbrook met Mayor Soglin at a “hackathon,” an event where hackers gather to work on their projects.

“The mayor shook my hand and said, ‘The city will use this,” Lashbrook said.

PetPass launched in May 2013.

The site began processing online registration applications and installed a dedicated kiosk at the Dane County Humane Society. 

But then things got bumpy.

According to Lashbrook, the PetPass team began to get very mixed messages from city employees. The treasurer’s office said PetPass was making their lives easier, but the technology department told them they needed to pull PetPass offline, because the city was building something similar (which ended up launching in July 2013, just months after PetPass' debut).

“Part of that is very understandable — as a technology entity of the city, the IT department has their chartered projects that they have years of planning and resource allocation for,” Lashbrook said. “The last thing they want to see is some tech-happy citizen coming in and potentially disrupting their project.”

“We just got a little disgruntled ourselves,” he added. “We were trying to go above and beyond, we felt like, to help.”

He said the ultimate goal of PetPass was to “bring forward the ethos of active, engaged, technology-driven citizens volunteering their time in order to make the City of Madison a better place.”

“None of us saw this as a reason to make money,” he added.

Ultimately, due to resistance from the city, Lashbrook and his team shut down PetPass.

“I don’t think Madison has a clear workflow with how to engage with a tech volunteer,” he said. “It would be really great to have better collaboration. I think there’s a lot of resistance.”

Others agree the road hasn’t exactly been easy for civic hackers since the open data ordinance’s passage.

“Unfortunately, even though we have the (open data) portal, that’s sort of just Step 1 in a hundred-step process,” said Resnick. “Although we’re putting out a few data sets, what we discovered is the interesting data sets weren’t being released — or there would be a huge amount of pushback before we would see any type of relevant data actually being released from City Hall.”

Data sets like Madison Police Department calls for service were online, but numbers and information on things like food inspections or snow plowing schedules, which have led to popular civic hacking apps in other cities, weren't available.

“When the data portal came out, I don’t think anybody looked at the data and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, now I can go scratch my itch,'" Tracy said. "I don’t know if it was an inspirational enough data set.”

Scott Resnick

Alder Scott Resnick speaks during a press conference at Sector67 in January 2013.

Resnick said he was aware of other hackers getting pushback and facing city-built roadblocks, similar to the experience of Lashbrook and PetPass.

Another hacker, he said, wanted to build a map of ash trees in Madison, to help map and track Emerald Ash Borer outbreaks.

The city forester’s office had security concerns about the release of data necessary to making that map, Resnick said, so the project went nowhere.

Tracy recently inquired about getting data from the city’s newly-installed data towers on bike paths. He was thinking about creating a map-based app that would show bike traffic, paired with bike share and bus stop locations, among other things.

But the city told him the data wasn’t really available, that the data towers weren't built to accumulate and spit out shareable stats.

When the Cap Times requested the same information, the city technology department was only able to provide data from one “totem,” the one located on the Southwest Path at Monroe Street.

“The city should make the choice to invest in the infrastructure and technology to make it so,” Tracy said.

The city's perspective

Despite hackers' complaints about roadblocks and the scant and uninspiring data sets released, city officials say they have tried to be very accommodating to the civic hacking community since the open data ordinance passed.

After the ordinance’s passage, the city gathered a group of employees from a variety of city departments and asked them to come up with a list of apps civic hackers could build based on city data.

When all was said and done, the team presented more than 300 ideas to the hacking community at an event in late 2013, according to Paul Kronberger, chief information officer for the city.

And what happened?

Absolutely nothing. Not a single idea was pursued, Kronberger said.

Derek Eder, a civic hacking expert based in Chicago, said that scenario — government telling civic hackers what to do, rather that civic hackers coming up with the ideas themselves — has played out in many cities across the United States.

“That seems to be a tactic that’s been tried before, and I’ve seen it fail every time,” Eder said. “That’s the perspective pretty common from government: they see these brigades as resources to be tapped.”

“We’re not at their beck and call,” he said.

Eder said government officials should consider civic hacking a form of volunteering. (That’s how Tracy framed it as well — “I don’t volunteer at soup kitchens, I volunteer with my technical skill,” he said.)

“That’s a very different dynamic that you have to work with than someone who works for you,” Eder said. “It’s good to hear the government perspective, but it’s not reasonable to expect someone to solve problems for government. There’s a limit to how much people are going to willing to do work that is being delegated to them.”

Eder said many of the civic hacking projects he’s seen thrive in Chicago are hackers’ pet projects, projects they have some sort of personal interest or investment in seeing all the way through.

But he does believe the government has a role to play.

The civic hacking movement in Chicago really got off the ground after Rahm Emanuel moved into the mayor’s office in 2011, Eder said.

“I think the government, especially the city, deserves a lot of credit for helping start the community,” he said.

The keys were releasing a lot of data — 988 sets as of December 2015, on everything from locations of city warming centers to performance metrics on street lights — and hiring a staff of city employees dedicated to helping departments get data online, facilitating access for hackers and staying up-to-date on the needs and interests of the hacking community.

For that last element, Eder nods to Tom Schenk, Chicago’s chief data officer.

Schenk would attend civic hacking nights and, instead of pitching projects to hackers, he’d start working on something for the city himself, tell people what it was and exude a “Hey, you’re welcome to join me, but it’s no big deal if you don’t want to” kind of vibe.

Madison doesn’t have a city staffer in a role like that.

Kronberger, the city’s chief information officer, has attended hacking nights and says he’s supportive of the scene, but isn't a hacker himself.

Kronberger’s primary hacking-related task, balanced with his other duties as the city’s CIO, which involve overseeing the department that provides tech-related development and infrastructure for the city, has been to encourage and support departments as they move to share data on the city’s open data portal.

But he admits getting data on the portal may not be high up on departments’ to do lists.

“Everybody’s busy with their own work, so it may not get the highest priority,” Kronberger said. “If it comes down to plowing streets in a snowstorm, well, that probably takes a priority.”

“So I think it varies — I think it varies on staff time availability within agencies and a number of factors like that,” he said.

Role model: Oakland

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Between January 2013 and December 2015, the City of Madison posted 118 data sets, including charts, maps and graphs with data users can export into spreadsheets or other files, on its open data portal.

According to an Isthmus article, the portal was hosting 103 data sets on Feb. 2015, which means the city added about one new data set per month in 2015.

Eder said it isn’t fair to compare Madison to cities like Chicago, which has nearly 1,000 data sets and updates its portal almost daily, leading to projects like a site that tells users if sewage was recently released into the Chicago River and an interactive city zoning map.

Instead, he said, Madison hackers and interested government officials should look to similarly-sized cities, like Oakland, Calif., for tips and inspiration.

Oakland's open data portal currently hosts about 315 data sets that feed a vibrant hacking community called OpenOakland.

OpenOakland, which meets weekly at City Hall, is supported by a coalition of government entities, nonprofits and citizens: The Kapor Center for Social Impact, an organization that champions diversity in the technology community, the Oakland Education Cabinet, a collaborative effort of the city government, school district and a local college, and Code for America, a national non-profit that functions like a tech-centric version of Teach for America or AmeriCorps, placing talented young professionals into tech-related public service roles.

In addition to its weekly meetings, the community hosts CityCamp hacking events (Madison also hosted CityCamp events in 2011, 2012 and 2013) and its own open data portal, which had 65 data sets as of December 2015.

The group’s hacking projects include an app that helps individuals locate public restrooms, and another, still in production, that finds ways to use open data to provide insight into gentrification in Oakland.

The group’s Meetup page, a social networking-type site used for organizing events, has more than 700 members. Madison's has 77.

Ultimately, Eder said there’s no go-to path to a successful community like Chicago’s or Oakland’s.

“Every city has a different landscape,” he said.


But local hackers, armed with insight into Madison’s tech and governmental landscapes, have some ideas for rebooting the local civic hacking scene.

First off, they’d suggest the city start “eating its own dog food.”

Basically, they want the City of Madison and all of its departments to use the city's open data portal for day-to-day city operations, like uploading, sharing and manipulating city data about food inspections or special event parking schedules.

If the city began using the portal for regular operations, hackers reason, city employees would be more compelled to upload new, interesting data sets as they interact with them, and the IT department would be motivated to make the site increasingly user and developer-friendly.

“They have an open data portal that they don’t use themselves,” said Erik Paulson, a civic hacker and former member of the city’s Digital Technology Committee. “I think that would push it much farther, if there was more of a commitment to say, ‘Use the open data portal for everything, unless you can’t.’”

(The city couldn’t use the open data portal for certain crime or health information, due to privacy concerns, but a hefty chunk of information would certainly be eligible, Paulson said.)

Happily for hackers, Kronberger said the city is currently implementing an "eat their own dog food" policy. Kara Kratowicz, the city's data projects coordinator, is overseeing the implementation.

Kratowicz said she and two co-workers will be training city employees to use a new, internally-facing side of the portal for day-to-day data projects. (Kratowicz and her co-workers are employees of the city's Racial Equity and Social Justice Initiative and were tasked, in part, with looking at and working with data related to racial disparities.)

"I don’t see there’s been much training on how to do this across the city," she said of employees uploading data to the portal. "I think there would be more people that would utilize it, if they knew how to."

Kratowicz believes departments will be more willing to upload data to the public side of the open data portal if they're comfortable working with it internally.

Hackers' second suggestion is to dedicate more city employee (or public official) time to establishing a relationship with the civic hacking community.

“I would love to see a committee,” said Lashbrook. “There needs to be some way for publicly-led projects to be managed and integrated with city initiatives.”

He said a committee would also help establish rules of the road for hacker-government relations, possibly preventing negative interactions like the one he experienced with PetPass.

Finally, several hacking community members believe the city should get a Code for America fellow, someone who understands the tricks and tools of the trade and could work within the city infrastructure.

“I don’t think the senior IT team in the city has the technical chops, actually,” said Tracy. “I think they need to hire a young whippersnapper that understands data infrastructure to go build a vision — and it’ll take time — for how you can transform data availability inside City Hall.”

“With Code for America, you’re getting outside experts for pretty low cost,” Paulson agreed. “Worst case, you’re going to get some help for low cost. Best case, you spin some interesting things up. I think it’s a gamble worth taking.”

Kronberger said his team has discussed hiring a Code for America fellow.

"There would be a requirement for funding however, and this is not available at this time," he said.

Looking to the future

Today, the civic hacking community in Madison is mostly dormant.

According to Tracy, there are only a handful of hackers left working in the community, a number that stands in sharp relief with the 50-some who showed up for that UW-Madison meetup in 2012. Paulson said many have moved on to other primary associations, like the startup community, or a popular local meetup about big data.

“A lot of the other technology stuff is going just fine,” Paulson said. “A lot of what we’d have at a civic hacking event is happening in other places.”

Resnick, for his part, has a far different outlook now than he did in 2013. Instead of looking toward a bright, promising future, he thinks the local hacking community needs a full reboot if it’s going to survive.

“This is a movement that’s going on,” Resnick said. “And Madison doesn’t seem to be a part of it.”

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