Seattle Embraces Open Data, Focuses on Innovation

Customer: City of Seattle

In 2010, the City of Seattle adopted the Socrata Open Data Platform to support its goal for improving access to public data. The city soon learned that open data can not only deliver greater transparency for the public, it can also offer opportunities for internal users to improve analysis, streamline processes, and enhance government services.

“Since 2010 we’ve leveraged the open data platform to build relationships with the development communities across the state,” said Interim Chief Technology Officer Sabra Schneider. “ In 2012, we hosted the first Start Up Weekend focused on government solutions and partnered with King County and Washington State to offer an app contest called Evergreen Apps. This work led to two ongoing partnerships with groups of developers that work for civic good, Code for Seattle locally and another called SpoCode in Spokane. These communities have been generous with their time and expertise and continually help Seattle grow our data sets and expand our technology tools for residents.”

A Commitment to Open Government and Information Access

In 2009, Seattle, Washington was welcoming a new mayor and the country was in a deep national recession. It might have a been a time of anxiety and indecision, but leadership at the City of Seattle was focused and excited about at least one initiative: a recognized leader in government transparency and technology innovation, the city was preparing to embrace open data as way to to improve access to public data, improve service delivery, and promote economic activity.

“The federal government had just launched, and a number of cities had already adopted it,” says Bruce Blood, Client Services Manager for the Citywide Web Team at the City of Seattle. “The mayor, council members, and the city CTO were all committed to open data as a way to widen access to information and help residents and businesses use city services in new ways.”

In 2010, the city began evaluating a number of options for launching an open data initiative. These included using internal IT resources to build the technology infrastructure it needed. Seattle ultimately chose to implement the Socrata Open Data Platform, a turnkey, cloud-based solution that makes it easy for organizations to publish, manage, and share public data.

Over the next several weeks, the city’s technology team worked with Socrata to launch its site, which offers public access to high-value datasets generated by various city departments and agencies. The city first released a single massive dataset, and then began adding datasets on crime statistics, alternative schools, public art, road maintenance, and more. In 12 months, Seattle had added 50 more datasets to its public data site. To date, it has published more than 150 unique datasets.

An Easy Decision and a Valuable Partner

According to Blood, the decision to work with Socrata was an easy one. “In 2009 and 2010, everybody was very excited about open data, but we were the lucky ones. We can practically see the Socrata headquarters from our offices,” he says. “And that’s the relationship we’ve had with them ever since. Socrata has been a wonderful partner in the city’s open data efforts.”

In making the decision, officials wondered whether the city had the financial or staffing resources to develop and manage an open data portal on its own. “It takes at least two weeks to build an API for a dataset, and we would have had to build hundreds,” says Blood. “Using Socrata for open data allows for easy development internally and externally and creates consistency for users across the state and country who are accustomed to the platform..”

phoneThe city’s initial focus was on making machine-readable datasets available to the public. Seattle and Socrata co-sponsored promotions to encourage the regional development community to create applications based on the newly published data. In time, a number of third-party developers have created robust online services and apps that use Seattle city data. Two examples include VeloRacks, a bike-rack locator app, and, a service that helps home owners and building professionals quickly estimate and compare pricing on various projects. The city’s internal teams used the open data platform to help create a mobile app for, and to post the detailed city budget on the City Budget Office webpage.

“A valuable part of our partnership with Socrata has been how they have helped us leverage a large community of people outside government to help make information more accessible for everyone,” says Neil Berry, Open Data Lead for the Citywide Web Team at the City of Seattle.

A Focus on More Innovation

In a 2010 statement, Seattle city councilmember Nick Licata predicted that Seattle would use open data to create a more responsive and cost-efficient city government. By the beginning of 2013, the city had begun to explore in earnest how it can use open data internally to conduct more complete analyses, streamline processes, improve services, and better communicate with the public. The IT team now focuses on teaching department employees how easy it is to use Socrata tools to collect data, model it, and create rich visualizations that convey department priorities, quality-of-life improvements for city residents, and much more. And, city employees can do all of these things without the need for any specialized technical knowledge.

“For example,” says Blood. The Department of Transportation can build an interactive dashboard that visualizes how many potholes the city filled this year and last year, or how many traffic fatalities the city suffered this year compared to past years. Every Seattle agency can tell that kind of story.”

Going forward, city leaders have prioritized technical innovation and data-driven decision making. The IT department has requested funding to use the Socrata platform to measure departmental performance and hopes to begin that program in 2016.

The city’s use of open data continues to inspire innovation. In January 2014, an independent developer introduced a Seattle 911 mobile app based on Seattle’s open data platform. The Seattle 911 app uses data already available on Seattle’s open data portal, but the app’s display of close-to-real-time crime and fire information quickly caught on with the public.

“We’ve used the Socrata open data platform to drive innovation,” says Blood. “We absolutely welcome when people take our data, look at it differently, and expand the range of resources we can offer the public.”