311, Blight, & Internal Data Go Digital in Montgomery, AL

March 22, 2017 11:26 am PST | Data as a Service
Montgomery Alabama

Open Data Montgomery is one of many moves the city of Montgomery is making toward greater transparency and a smarter city. The information on the new site — including datasets on the region’s efforts to fight blight, construction permits, public safety, and 311 requests — is informing citizens and local businesses with vital information, and engaging the local tech community as well. We spoke with Griffith Waller, the city of Montgomery’s Public Relations Specialist, about how Open Data Montgomery has transformed internal practices, goals for the open data program, and much more.

Socrata: What led to the launch of Open Data Montgomery?
Griffith Waller: About a year ago, Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange championed Montgomery’s move to implement an open data initiative after consulting with one of the region’s tech gurus. This expert not only shared the new strategies and benefits of municipal governments adopting open data policies, but also how they could help Montgomery to better serve residents. Open data was also essential in our mission to further embrace transparency and promote active citizenship. We found all the relevant data we could, filtered through what is most beneficial to our community, cleaned it up, and released it back to Montgomery citizens and the world. 

Giving our citizens back their data just makes sense. It’s especially encouraging that our tech community and a local Code for America Brigade, #HackMGM, have pledged to create solutions to optimize our quality of life in the River Region in conjunction with Open Data Montgomery.

“Giving our citizens back their data just makes sense.”

The project was also a way to complement several other moves Montgomery is making to create a smarter city. For instance, we celebrated the one year anniversary of the Montgomery Internet Exchange (MGMix) this month, a project developed to bring better service and a brighter future to our region. 

Socrata: How will publishing datasets help local businesses and the community?
Waller: Our hope is subcontractors who previously had to visit our office and then manually sort through a huge list of ongoing construction projects can now visit data.montgomeryal.gov to quickly and seamlessly find ongoing projects and contractor contact information, then bid on any parts of these projects. That, and we also think it will further embolden our local tech, development, and creative scene by providing a fresh supply of ideas for creating an even better community. Potentially, these ideas could turn into profitable applications or businesses. We are just excited to see what happens next!

We want to enhance the quality of life in the River Region for all of our citizens. By launching Open Data Montgomery, we hope to empower residents by unleashing this treasure trove of information. Encouraging active citizenship is paramount to our open data policy. By giving our citizens back their data, we want to see them take this information and solve everyday issues in a more efficient and effective manner. Of course, our government offices and our standard, longstanding resources will always still be available. But, giving residents a choice is essential in any community hoping to become a smart city.

Socrata: What’s the most interesting dataset you found while working on this project?
Waller: Seeing the demolitions dataset reaffirmed and illustrated our fight against blight. We have yet to incorporate a stringent performance management program, so being able to pull data formerly found on staff computer desktops to one standard platform and location that allows the creation of such a striking visualizations speaks to the progress we’re achieving. And, it has helped the open data initiative get more “buy-in” across our organization. In fact, department leaders began researching even more ways to bring their data onto the platform.

“What may have once seemed like information locked in silos is now readily available and easily accessible to all departments.”

Socrata: How has the new open data site changed internal practices?
Waller: One of the biggest benefits resulting from our launch is the collaboration between departments. From public works to public information, what may have once seemed like information locked in silos is now readily available and easily accessible to all departments. It helps for presentations, optimizing our existing workflow systems, and much more. Maybe above all, it helps better connect our staff, while alleviating many tedious tasks.

Our public works director has become a strong proponent of the platform since launch. He manages multiple departments within our city organization, and he is working to find more ways to incorporate his data — whether it’s street maintenance information, nuisance code violations, or permitting — to provide a summary of the progress we’re making on a daily basis across our city. At the end of the day, we must find ways to show our success, especially when we’re accountable to our residents.

Socrata: What’s next for this program?
Waller: We’d like to continue building a robust platform.Right now, we’re eyeing financial and public safety data to add in the near future. We’ll soon incorporate an app that allows visitors to explore our budget and revenue data.

For the long term, we hope residents will begin using the site to solve day-to-day problems and small business owners can find the information needed to find new opportunities for growth and expansion. Additionally, we plan to continue collaborating with the local Code for America Brigade, Hack MGM, to find new ways to tell the story of the progress happening here, while also solving problems for the community.

Overall, Open Data Montgomery has served as a progress report for both residents and our city team. It helps hold government accountable to our citizens. We hope to continue expanding the program to include data and information from state agencies or educational systems with which we work closely.

Socrata: How do you hope your program influences nearby cities and local governments?
Waller: Success breeds success, so we hope to influence our neighboring communities, state agencies, and partners to join us in implementing an open data initiative. Right now, we are proud to stand with our Alabama sister-city, Tuscaloosa, as we both continue building out these platforms. We’d also like to sit down with their leaders and share stories on best practices, trials and errors, and new developments in our journeys.

As far as advice for other governments considering rolling out a program like Open Data Montgomery, they must know that community support is essential. We didn’t necessarily have a dedicated program manager, but Open Data Montgomery has been successful thanks to the mayor’s staunch support, a hardworking team, and an incredibly supportive CfA Brigade. That being said, finding someone to dedicate most of their time to the planning, launch, and strategy behind implementing an open data program would be very helpful.

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