Middleton considers 'open data' for increased transparency

Middleton considers 'open data' for increased transparency

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With an eye toward increasing transparency and participation in the city budgeting process, Middleton officials are exploring the possibility of creating an “open data” portal on the city’s website.

The City Council on Tuesday will consider a $15,000 pilot project with Socrata, a Seattle-based software company that helps municipalities convert data into easily digestible charts and graphs that track government spending, performance measures, police reports and other information.

Adoption of open data – a movement that seeks to make the expansive amount of data collected and generated by government publicly available – has become a growing trend in many large American cities, but it has been slow to catch on in smaller communities.

Middleton city administrator Mike Davis said making the city budgeting process more open and understandable to the public has for the last several years been a priority of finance director John Lehman.

Prior to Lehman’s arrival in Middleton, the budget was not published on the city website. Now, city staff send out surveys to collect citizen input prior to drafting the budget.

“That all has made us more open and transparent, but still, as a layperson, when you read through a city budget, it can be hard to decipher,” Davis said.

After learning about Socrata’s software at a conference in Seattle, Davis and Lehman agreed open data might be a good thing for the city to pursue.

“We both felt that it would help us move to the next stage in openness and transparency,” Davis said.

If the council approves the pilot, Socrata would help the city develop a portal through its website that would graphically display departmental budgets and spending. Beyond public consumption, Davis said it has potential to be useful to city staff because it includes performance measures and benchmarks.

Madison officials adopted an open data ordinance in 2012, which at the time was hailed as a way to increase transparency and potentially stir development of useful third-party web and mobile applications.

A few apps have popped up that track city buses and map police and fire calls, but app development has been fairly stagnant.

The city has published more than 100 data sets on its online portal, including some using Socrata, but it’s unclear how much interest there is in using the majority of the data available for app development.

Police calls for service is Madison’s most popular data set, attracting about 18,000 views since it was uploaded in December 2012. Other popular data sets include street tree maps and assessment information, said David Faust, applications development manager for Madison.

“Some other data may be extremely useful, but we have no way of knowing what people do with it once they have it,” Faust said.

Implementing open data can also be time consuming because there are challenges in getting data ready to publish. Madison’s information technology staff have worked toward automated publishing to help limit the staff time it consumes, Faust said.

Davis said Middleton would start incrementally, but its goal would be to incorporate open data for all city departments.

Should Middleton continue beyond the pilot project, Davis said the software would cost $24,000 per year.

“Certainly I’m not looking to establish great expectations to start, but to move us gradually in a direction which makes us more open, so when we look back five years from now we say, ‘Yeah, we’ve done something that other small governments have perhaps not yet done,’” he said.

‘Certainly I’m not looking to establish great expectations to start, but to move us gradually in a direction which makes us more open, so when we look back five years from now we say, ‘Yeah, we’ve done something that other small governments have perhaps not yet done.’’ Mike Davis
Middleton city administrator
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