When Open Data and Civic Hackers Meet for the First Time...

November 06, 2012 by Brian Busch

I wouldn't quite say it is romantic.  But when teams of software developers, designers, and data scientists get their hands on data sets they previously had no access to, the results are spectacular.

That was the scene this past weekend at the hack-a-thon sponsored by two of the Code for America Accelerator companies (Captricity, of course, and our good friends at LearnSprout); more information here. Code for America let us use their beautiful office space in SOMA and chipped in for coffee, pizza, and wine (and all of us are grateful they did).  The teams had their work cut out for them - Ann Ravel & Tina Bass from the FPPC and James Sanders from KIPP Bay Area Schools were on hand to encourage and later judge the teams' work. If you don't recognize the names immediately, suffice it to say these folks are on the front lines of open government and education data every day.

A team hard at work on the open data

From the opening talks ("you could prevent the next Watergate" and "fixing education is a first step to fixing our country") through the final presentations, the teams working on the civic side showed tremendous enthusiasm. And with good reason: the data the teams had to work with has never been available in a structured, machine-readable format in the past. Ever. Full stop. Not "our corporate partners have been working on this for years but maybe you can do better..."

"I know nothing about the judges I vote for." A simple statement that seems to have inspired the 1st and 2nd teams working on civic data. It's particularly timely with election season. Both teams came up with tools that would help voters search for and visualize important information about the California judges that are on the ballott - all from the public FPPC filings that Captricity digitized. Open Judge, for example, created a live mobile app and website that allows users to comb through the gifts that judges receive (we'll have more links shortly, I hope, so you can check it out yourself). Imagine combining the gifts judges receive with "fairness in the eyes of the law" assessments, accounts from other lawyers, and a decision record. If I had that at my disposal, I might consider myself an informed voter - and right now, I know only that I'm terribly uninformed about the judges I vote for.

Tam presents to the judges

And a solo team, Tam, went through and cleaned up a massive amount of data made available by the CA Secretary of State (data that includes political campaign contributions and "independent" political expenditures - read: PACs, even out-of-state groups...). It might have come a little too late for this election, but everyone in the room understood how important that data will be going forward (Tam's presentation got the loudest cheers of anyone).

Some of the most excited folks in the crowd were actually our friends from the FPPC. They work with this information daily, post PDFs of public employee filings online, and work hard to make the general public care. So you can imagine their enthusiasm when, in 30 hrs, they saw a first cut of two tools that could make that information matter to California voters. Both of the teams were immediately invited to present their creations to a larger group of folks at the FPPC (which might take the idea and run with it!). And Tam was basically offered a job on the spot. I'd say the future of Open Data is looking up.

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