Socrata Interview Derek Eder Open City Apps

Derek Eder – Civic Developer, Founder of DataMade and Open City

Interviewed on Feb. 1st, 2013


How did you get started as a civic developer?

This developed out a passion that I have. I was spending a lot of time working on open government projects outside of my regular job. It was very empowering to work on new code and know that what I was working with had this potential to have a high impact on things I cared about.

I live in Chicago. I love the city. And, there are a lot of things that open data can make better. I’m lucky that I was able to take something that was a passion, something I was spending my outside time on, and now turn it into my day job.

What was your job before you worked as a civic developer?

After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis with a degree in Computer Engineering, I got a job with a company called Webitects where I did .NET development. I worked there for six years and that’s where I learned how to be a professional programmer and also where I learned what good design was. I owe them a lot for getting me into this new field. My boss Paul Baker is also one of the co-founders of Open City, the banner we release civic apps under. He had been interested in open data and open government for a while and was at the first CityCamp when it was here in Chicago.

He saw some data that the new city administration had been releasing and he encouraged myself and a couple of other developers to look at it. Those actions released this force of developers and from there it had a life of its own.

How did you first get started working for yourself?

It started as hobby. There was a hackathon hosted in the Google offices. That is where I first met Chris [Metcalf from Socrata]. This hackathon was pretty much the debutante ball for John Tolva and Brett Goldstein and signified open government being embraced by the city of Chicago.

We decided to look at this lobbyist data that the city had released and see what we could do with it. And, that is what lead to our first civic app, Chicago Lobbyists.

How are you making a living as a civic developer? What is your day-to-day work like?

My time is split between my own LLC, DataMade, working on open government projects, and do a lot of work with a group called the Smart Chicago Collaborative, run by Dan O’Neil who is one of the original founders of EveryBlock. Through them, I’ve worked on projects for the city of Chicago and also a couple of projects for different funders.

There was a really strong alignment between what I wanted to do and what Dan wanted to do, which was we wanted to make projects with open data. They should be open source and they should be civic in nature. I was fortunate enough to team up with Dan and work on a couple of projects. Since then, I have met new clients and am essentially trying to get more groups and appeal to more nonprofits to buy into the idea of open source software, of building a tool that someone else can then reuse. The idea of a rising tide lifting all boats.

I spent a lot of time in my previous job writing closed source software. It’s nice. It’s fine. But, I found that I was repeating myself a lot, just writing the same code over and over. Only a very few people were getting the benefit out of that. So, I decided when I went into business for myself to do things exclusively open source so that people can then take that code and reuse it or repurpose it.

I guess it’s kind of a radical philosophy to some people. A lot of people in the business world believe that giving your source code away is giving away your asset, but I don’t see it that way. I see my asset as my ability to program, my understanding of these topics and of the data. I use it as a way to push myself forward. I don’t want to just rest on my laurels and keep producing the same thing over and over. I have to keep pushing forward, making new apps, working with different technologies. It’s a fun challenge. I get to work on new things every day, force myself to learn new things, which I find fun, so it works out.

I’m also working on my own side projects all the time. I have four or five of them going. Some of them are civic apps, like a lot of the ones you see on the Open City website. We have about 10 apps up there now. Those were all created in our spare time, from working on certain datasets that have just come out, or someone will have a question about the city and we’ll see if open data can answer it.

So, a lot of my time is spent on that, as well as side projects. Some of them just for fun, but a lot of them as tools that can be reused by others. I’m always looking for something I can genericize and share with others. Through that I have made a few open source tools with a good community around them, namely the Searchable Map Template.

Who do you work with on your projects?

I like working with new people all the time. Right now, DataMade is just me but I collaborate with quite a few people throughout the city and also through the open government community.

One of the great things we have been doing in Chicago lately that has been very successful is a weekly open government hack night. It happens every Tuesday. It’s a place for developers, designers, government employees, or just people who are curious about this sort of stuff to come share ideas, share technology, and actually get to work on projects. A lot of the projects I work on have started there. Somebody might be interested in a particular project and it sounds like a fun one to work on. Teams just kind of develop naturally from that.

I like working with a variety of people. I think that is one of the more fun aspects of the job. You get to learn new things from people. They can teach you and you can teach them.

Socrata interviewed Tom Schenk from the city of Chicago and he says that the city does not sponsor these nights.

Yeah, Tom Schenk is a regular at the Open Gov Hack Night. I can’t tell you how amazing it is to have someone from the city who is there all the time. His purview is the data portal and he’s just an amazing resource to be able to ask questions, like ‘This dataset, can you explain how this came to be?’ And, he’s kind of our interface to the city on getting these crucial questions about the data they’re releasing. Furthermore, he shows up because what he gets out of it is that he’s keeping tabs on what the developer community wants and needs and what they want to do with the data. It’s this really great feedback mechanism we have through the hack night and because Tom and other people like him show up.

When Socrata interviewed Tom Schenk, he mentioned the need to be humble, to build relationships, and to facilitate. It sounds like he’s doing a great job at that.

Yes, I would definitely reiterate what he said: being humble. It is interesting thinking about it from the government side and also from the developer side. Obviously, I’m from the developer side. Maybe the average citizen will look at government and they’ll see it as this big, monolithic thing. But, you don’t realize that it is just people and they’re just like us and they have their own problems and their own constraints.

I think that is a common thing that people think about and that is one of the things that open government is helping to dispel. [Government] is not this monolithic thing. It’s very nuanced. There is a lot going on. There are a lot of people.

I think that, in some ways, not just people in government but anybody, have a similar image of technology. They see it as this giant, monolithic thing when in fact it’s just a bunch of connected, little pieces put together. It’s this very complicated thing, in the many of the same ways that government is. This hack night represents us breaking down those barriers, explaining technology to people in government and people in government explaining government to everybody else.

It’s really important to be humble in that situation because you could look at a government website and it’s very easy to criticize it. ‘You use bad fonts and blah, blah, blah. It’s not to web standards.’ But, you have to realize the constraints that they are under and meet them where they are at. That’s really the takeaway I have gotten out of doing [hack nights] over the past couple of years. You have to meet people where they’re at and that’s where amazing things can happen and all of these apps can come from. We can get better. That’s where we all can get better.

What inspires you to create useful apps for citizens? How would you describe your passion for it?

I’d say, empowering is a word you could use. With the web out there, the fact that pretty much anybody can have an audience is a pretty powerful thing. And, the fact that we can take the data that the city releases and really do something amazing with it. And, we can do it with a small, little team of people.

We can build and app and publish it and have thousands of people using it and looking at it and it doesn’t cost anything but our time. That’s a really empowering and powerful thing to think about.

You think about what you do every day and how that can move the levers of making things better in the world and I can’t think of anything that I am, at least, capable of that can do so much and have such an impact.

Have you talked to anybody who has used one of your apps and liked it?

Yeah, that has happens more and more. Our community in Chicago is still pretty tight. People know who has done what. I have definitely heard people mention my apps before. You see people emailing about it or you hear people talking about it.

One of my old coworkers sent me an email last night, saying, ‘I heard you were on the radio. WBEZ was talking about your app.’ I had no idea. They were doing a piece on vacant buildings. They saw that I built this tool to look up vacant buildings in Chicago and they used it as part of their piece. So, that’s pretty neat.

How do you work with government?

I have worked with government in a couple of different ways. The first interactions I’ve had with government were through the Open Gov meet up, through the hack nights. People come and we have this very informal atmosphere. We can just ask questions here and there.

One of my first interactions with the city was directly after that first hackathon we had at Google, when we were building Chicago Lobbyists. They had this initial set of data that they had released. That’s what we used to build the app.

And, in the process of building Chicago Lobbyists we found that there were actually some pieces missing. We knew how much the lobbyists made and we knew who was hiring that lobbyist but we didn’t know how much each group was paying each lobbyist for each action. We didn’t have that level of granularity.

So, we came up with this list of 10 questions and we shot an email off to Brett Goldstein and he set up a meeting where we went through all of this information. He actually brought in people from the Ethics Department who are responsible for collecting this information. We actually got to meet the guy whose job it is to take the handwritten forms and then type them into the computer, which makes this dataset.

We told them what we wanted to see and they said, ‘Oh, yeah, we actually collect that. We’ll go ahead and update the dataset for you.’ I think it took them three weeks and they released the data and Rahm went on ‘Chicago Tonight’ and did an announcement about it.

That was a win for the city and it was a win for us because we took that data back and improved our app. It didn’t require a FOIA. It didn’t require any arm twisting. It was just a very symbiotic interaction. I love that pattern and I think that we have tried to follow it as an open government community in Chicago.

Do you have advice for small towns that do not have a lot of developers? How do they reach out and where do they reach out?

From the government perspective, I have thought about how Chicago got this community and built it up. The Open Government group has been around for a while and there was actually a period of time when it seemed like it was going to die. The question was, ‘Is it worth the $70 a month to pay Meetup.com to host this thing?’ because not much was happening. People were going to meetings and they were just chit chatting about whatever.

Then, this critical thing happened. The city started releasing data. That’s it. That is the one thing that changed. Then all of these people who were already here decided to start looking at that data and making things with it. It fundamentally changed the community from a talking, chatting group to a group that does stuff. Things come out of it.

Then, all of the sudden, you actually have stuff to talk about like, ‘I built this thing. Let’s have a conversation about this because I see these questions coming out of this thing. I want to understand this better because I actually have something to play with, to actually see how it works. That is the piece of advice that I would have. If you are a new city to this and you want people to do things, you have to publish data. Period.

The precursor to releasing data was people scraping websites, like EveryBlock. They scraped the crap out all of these sites. It’s very, very hard to find someone who has the patience and the resources to be able to do that. And, we don’t have to do that as much anymore. You just lower the barrier for doing things with open data. You release it and things will happen.

What can other communities learn from OpenGov Chicago?

Meet often and build stuff. A lot of people hear that we have weekly hack night, which is something that took a while to build up, and think, ‘How do you prevent people from burning out? That just seems like way too much.’ I think it’s that the approach we take is not a hackathon, where you’re stuffing your face with Doritos for 24 hours straight, trying to get something done and get to this point where you can say, ‘I’ve done something.’

Most things that come out of a hackathon are unfinished and there is kind of this let down afterwards where you’re like, ‘Ah, man, I was feeling so good and we had all this momentum and then it stopped.’

But, what we’ve found with this hack night that it is okay if you don’t finish. Come back next week. And, it’s every week. It’s this place where people can get work done. It takes a little time to get to where you have people who have those skills and can actually build things and have that drive. Once you do, I think that having this hack night is such a benefit that everybody goes. And, ours is growing. We get 30 people a week, which is kind of crazy.

And you had 200 people at your holiday party, Tom Schenk told us.

We did, I know. It helps when booze and food are sprung for. It was a ton of people. And it was a combination of OpenGov Chicago and Urban Geek Drinks, which is monthly drink up.

We have some big players in the game now. Smart Chicago is funded by the MacArthur Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust. Those are big players, and represent the next stage in the movement here.

However, you don’t necessarily need all of that to get started. You just need some consistency, some sort of group, people who feel they are getting something out of it when they meet. That’s how you get started.

Where are the apps running and who keeps them up to date?

Most of our apps are hosted on Heroku. You’d be amazed at what you can squeeze out of the free tier on Heroku. You have a pretty limited space for databases and a limited amount of resources, but if you cache your pages right you can get a lot out of it.

For updating, some of these are sort of a snapshot in time. But we’ve actually been writing scripts that are automated. How’s Business, a dashboard of different economic indicators in Chicago built with open data, is a good example. We have some R scripts that are running, that pull data down from the Chicago data portal, process and push it out to a Fusion Table.

A lot of our heavy lifting is done by you guys, who host the data, and we pull it down from you guys and then we use Fusion Tables, or a service like that, to store the data for the actual app. That’s also free. There is a lot we can get away with using free apps or free services. And, you can do a lot with it.

Sometimes, though, what you get for free isn’t enough. Recently, Smart Chicago has started offering free web hosting for civic apps. As our apps get bigger and more complex, services like these will really help.