HartfordData: Paving the Way to Open Data Thought Leadership in the North East
As more and more governments of all sizes enact open data initiatives, transparency advocates spend less time explaining the concept of open data to leadership, but still work hard to mitigate security concerns associated with adopting an open data platform. Connecticut's capital City of Hartford faced this very problem when implementing their open data portal, HartfordData. Hartford is a fantastic example of how the combination of strong leadership support and clear goals for the initiative can help increase both internal and external use of an open data platform.
Discovering Open Data
Before Hartford Mayor, Pedro Segarra, returned from The Conference of Mayors in DC in the spring of 2013 armed with big ideas about how Hartford could use open data, the extent of the open data landscape was a mystery for many in Hartford's government. They heard other municipalities such as Seattle, Boston, and NYC had already adopted platforms of their own, but it was the State of Connecticut’s platform launch that inspired Mayor Segarra to write an executive order mandating an open data initiative. "We wanted to make sure that we got in on the ground level with the State of Connecticut's platform," said Hartford's Chief Innovation Officer, Sabina Sitaru. Having State and City portals up at the same time not only provides citizens access to more information, but also allows for data to be easily shared between governments.
To learn more about what open data options were available to them, Sabina Sitaru and Hartford Geographic Information Systems Manager, Brett Flodine, went to a local developer event at RESET and talked to participants and organizers. "It was an eye opening experience; we had no idea how much infrastructure there was around open data already," Sitaru commented. "This event, and the Hackathon that followed, showed us possibilities for open data that we had never thought of before." The next step was to decide how to get a portal up and running. Hartford received a grant from Microsoft to pilot Socrata's Open Performance software for six months. They were surprised at how easy the software was to use and how much support they received from Socrata staff even during the pilot process.
"I've heard of organizations using free software that requires people in-house to maintain and federate data between entities," said Sitaru. "We wouldn't be able to do that at all. We needed a program that can be run by a staff of one." “Socrata provided polished applications with all the features that we wanted," Flodine added. "The software is very intuitive once you learn how to use it. We spent most of our time figuring out how best to setup the site and automating data, rather than struggling with technical issues." HarfordData went live in June of 2014, and was officially launched two months later in August of the same year. In the two months between the soft launch and official launch announcement, HartfordData has already started to meet the goals of the City's open data initiative.
Like many cities that implement an open data initiative, Hartford seeks to increase transparency within the City, make data available for better decision-making on both internal and external fronts, and reduce FOIA requests for data. "We started with the concept of: 'Let's get the data all in one place so that we can use it to improve our internal network first before expanding to external use’," Sitaru explained. Their highest priorities when the site first went live included publishing restaurant inspection data, permit data, and GIS data. It wasn't long after these three initial datasets were published that Hartford began to see the fruits of their labor. At a local hackathon event, developers used the restaurant and food service license data to put together an app that maps the best places to buy groceries in the city.
Seeing their data transformed into a useable application was an enlightening experience for the City's CIO especially. "We were introduced to a land we never lived in before," Sitaru said. "Four months ago we didn't even know these people existed let alone think that they were right in our own backyard." The hackathon event also illuminated for Sitaru and Flodine how quickly and efficiently raw data can be transformed into a usable application. "One minute we're uploading datasets to the portal, and the next it is being used to build something that improves citizen's daily lives," said Flodine. "Witnessing that really motivated us to upload more datasets and has inspired us to be supportive of hackathon events in the future."
While HartfordData was immediately successful among external sources, getting departments onboard to use the portal internally required a longer ramp-up phase. "We are still working through getting people to buy into it internally," said Sitaru. "This means having to sell it over and over to get them to understand what open data is and how they can use it to better their department both internally, and externally." Even though the Mayor had issued an executive order requiring all agencies and departments to participate in the platform, inside the government people were concerned that certain datasets could affect the city in negative ways.
They pointed out that publishing things like public safety data might target neighborhoods with higher crime rates and lower real estate value. "We had to let them know that publishing data would be happening in small steps, and reassure them that adopting an open data platform wasn't like opening Pandora's Box," Flodine recounted. "This provided reassurance for many of the departments and made them more confident that the data was not going to be used against them." Flodine and Sitaru expect that internal use will increase once they start working with Open Performance and better understand how the data can be used to not only create goals but to make decisions internally in real time rather than once a month or quarter.
The Future of HartfordData
Right now Hartford is focused on getting additional datasets uploaded to the portal and increasing internal use. However, Flodine and Sitaru are very excited about the bright future of HartfordData. "Once we finish publishing more of our datasets and people are using the portal internally, we really want to shift our focus to helping citizens find better services," says Sitaru. "We would also like to put more visualizations on site once we get more data on the site," added Flodine. Long term, Hartford hopes to be the open data thought leader for mid-sized cities in the North East by showing how investing in the Open Data Portal and Open Performance provided a good ROI.
As a city that went from having no knowledge of the open data landscape to publishing a successful portal in a matter of months, Hartford is a prime example of what an open data initiative can accomplish when goals are clear and prioritized. Their implementation story also provides insight into how serious and valid concerns associated with open data can be alleviated through strong leadership and persistent education. Though the future of Hartford's Open Data Portal is bright, Flodine and Sitaru recognize the obstacles on the road ahead. "We're still a work in progress," says Flodine. "But we've gone further than we ever imagined in the short time the portal has been live," Sitaru added. “I can’t wait to see what we'll accomplish in our first year.”