Despite Washington's reputation for opaqueness, the District of Columbia may be one of the most transparent cities
in the country.
That's because residents of the district have at their fingertips a plethora of city data, which they can access through more than 200 data feeds and numerous visualization applications via the Web.
The data visualization tools, which let citizens explore demographic information about their neighborhoods, for example, are the result of efforts originally begun more than 10 years ago to give then mayor Anthony Williams and other city leaders better insights into the district's daily operations, according to the city's chief technology officer, Chris Willey.
The idea was to break down the silos between city agency databases, integrating police, health, education and other city data together into a single data warehouse. It was not an easy process, Willey said.
Some agencies, like the police department and Health and Human Services, were already required by law to make some data available to the public, but the departments were reluctant to reveal certain other data, he said. Other agencies claimed their data was not clean enough to share with the public.
"There's a lot of fear of making data public," Willey said, "but it makes government better." In fact, it took a good deal of persuasion and the creation of data sharing agreements between the office of the CTO and city agencies to make them comfortable with the project, but eventually the data warehouse was created.
Next, the city created CapStat, a performance management application modeled on a similar tool used by the city of Baltimore, Willey said. The system allows the mayor to understand links between school truancy and crime, for example, or analyze public health-related data and its correlation to emergency room visits.
But the city didn't stop there. When Mayor Adrian Fenty was elected in 2006, Willey said, the decision was made to make the data available to all of the district's citizens to improve city services and give the citizenry a way to hold the government accountable.
In addition to making around 270 data feeds available to the public, the city also developed a number of Geographic Information System (GIS)-based tools that the public can use to view data points on city maps. But Willey said they soon realized that the city had neither the time nor the money to develop all the visualization tools that citizens wanted. So they decided to outsource the job to the citizens themselves.
In 2008, the city launched its Apps for Democracy campaign. Then city CTO and current CIO for the federal government Vivek Kundra gave developers access to 200+ data feeds and challenged them to create data mashup applications "to make the data more useful," Willey said. The only stipulation was that developers had to use open source technology to do it.
In less than a month, the city received more than 47 applications, of which it selected a handful of winners that were then made available to the public. Among the winners was Park It DC, an application that lets residents find available parking meters. Another was Everyblock.com, a site that gives residents detailed business and demographic data on their neighborhoods.
The entire contest cost the city around $50,000 to administer, but the resulting applications were worth far more, Willey said. The city ran a second Apps for Democracy contest earlier this year, and Willey hopes to make the contest an ongoing rather than once-a-year event to fully tap the potential of local developers. In addition, he said, the city is asking residents to submit their suggestions for data mashup applications and is challenging developers to create them.
Today, there are more than 40 mashup applications in the city's online directory for citizen use. They vary from gas station finders to an app that keeps track of how much money the city has spent in procurement funds. But none of it would have happened, Willey said, had the city not embarked on that initial data warehouse project nearly a decade ago.