By Mackenzie Cutruzzula
The government has always been required to publish public documents and records, but until recently there was no easy access to the records for civilians. Enter Tim Wisniewski, the Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia. When Wisniewski joined the Administration in 2012, it became his mission to make government data easily accessible online.
As part of the ongoing Brown Bag lecture series, Wisniewski visited the College on Friday, Feb. 20 to explain how access to open data leads to better working partnership between the city’s residents and its government.
Wisniewski’s experience with civic technology began with his political science background rather than his technological one.
“In middle school I wanted to create a website around Harry Potter,” Wisniewski admitted. “I bought CliffNotes books on HTML and Java Script and as people got involved with the site I enjoyed the interaction and continued programming, but only has a hobby.”
Wisniewski chose to pursue his passion of political science first. After working on campaigns, he settled into a career related to community building. While being involved with the civic associations, Wisniewski used community hack-a-thons to garner new ways to improve neighborhoods. During one particular competition, he and a partner built an application that took all the city’s public information on property owners and organized it so that potential buyers, sellers and renters could easily research whom they would be working with.
Wisniewski became hooked on the idea of civilians and government interaction through new and emerging technologies. After becoming Chief Data Officer, he encouraged civic engagement by letting civilians choose how they wanted the open data set up. Members of the community, not the government, create all of the websites and applications that are promoted by Wisniewski’s administration. Applications created include online campaign finance reports, crime rates by area and the school district budget.
“We wanted to take all of the data and put it online to eliminate the confusing process of asking for it,” Wisniewski said. “By putting it out there in a clear way for residents to understand, it makes governments more accountable and their decisions more transparent.”
To highlight the versatile use of open data, Wisniewski explained how Philadelphia is specifically using the data. The website PHL Crime Mapper uses police records that allows an individual to draw a circle around a specific area in Philadelphia and see pinpointed locations the violent crimes reported in that area. Another application, “School District of Philadelphia Budget,” organizes the allotted money for the budget into a color-coded pie chart. Within that chart the individual can scroll over a specific section to gain better understanding of where every dollar is going.
“As an IMM major, all of the different ‘apps’ that members of the community made for the government data was really interesting to me because it is nice to see that the ‘apps’ civilians make get noticed and are used,” sophomore Devon Tam said.
Going forward, Wisniewski intends to keep updating the city’s open data access. He feels that there are still too many departments using outdated technology and print strategies that are hindering the access to open data. He wants no department left behind and feels the support he has is a sure sign of positive progress ahead. Part of this progress includes a new government website that includes links to the 156 data sets from 29 departments. The old website is still up and running, but rather than waiting up to two years for the new finished product, Wisniewski’s administration is publishing the components piece by piece to keep the website fresh and updated. The new website can be found at alpha.phila.gov.
“We understand that interaction with the government is happening online now,” Wisniewski said. “We want to make sure our city has a digital front door.”