Open Data Rockstar: Jennifer Pahlka

September 10, 2015 12:00 pm PST | Data Rockstars

Jennifer PahlkaCivic tech pioneer Jennifer Pahlka is the Founder and Executive Director of Code for America. She served as the U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, delivered a TEDTalk, and helped start the East Bay Mini Maker Faire. Her numerous awards include MIT’s Kevin Lynch Award, the Oxford Internet Institute’s Internet and Society Award, and the National Democratic Institute’s Democracy Award.

What do you do at work all day?

Go to meetings, talk with clients and funders — all the usual stuff. But when I need a fix, I lurk in our Slack channels where people are doing fascinating work on things like access to food stamps or reducing incarceration. We run a range of experiments to figure out how to make government services work better, and our teams are constantly getting data and hearing directly from the people who need these services. The concreteness of the work energizes me.

What’s the next big thing in open data?

Apps that let people help make their communities better.

Why data-driven government?

Because data-driven government is a really important part of making government work in the 21st century. Even though it’s easier than ever before to get data about what the public and residents need, we separate what government delivers from how government delivers. Data-driven government means using data to understand user needs and having the information needed to improve government services over time.

Have you had an open data “eureka!” moment?

There was a moment when I was hearing from the UK’s Government Digital Service about what they meant by government as a platform. They hadn’t concentrated on opening data first, they’d concentrated on the highest volume government transactions first. And by doing that, they were doing open data by stealth, because digital services don’t work without open data.

What’s the next whizbang innovation coming from open data?

I don’t think we should be waiting for a whizbang innovation. It’s not really about products or services or SaaS or anything at this point. It’s about getting the basics right, which is delivering usable, useful services and information. We need open data to do that.

What’s your favorite open data story?

One of our favorites is Blight Status, a service that one of our fellowship teams built with the city of New Orleans. The City’s CIO had been told by vendors that a service providing basic information about blighted properties would would cost several million dollars and take three years to build. But this was something the city’s residents and its public really care about. So our fellowship team started with meeting the community, understanding their needs and figuring out how to integrate the various sources of data that they city couldn’t integrate on its own. In 12 weeks, the team had built the first version of Blight Status, letting you enter the address of any property in NOLA and return the exact status. When the service came out and was shown at neighborhood meetings, people stopped fighting and started working together to prioritize the city’s work.

What’s your advice for making open data interesting?

Make it relevant. Make it show something that people care about, that helps people understand something in a new way, or use the data to make something useful to people. The story has always been about what we can do with open data instead of open data in and of itself.

What would you ask the next Open Data Rockstar?

Who’s going to use the open data, and what are they going to use it for? Transparency and accountability are valid, noble goals, but I think open data really works and more people see the value and benefit of it when it meets their day-to-day needs.

Where to see Pahlka in action:

Catch the livestream of the Code for America Summit, September 30 – October 2 in Oakland, California. Follow along using #CfASummit.


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