Open Twin Cities (http://www.opentwincities.org/) is an assemblage of local hackers with a timely cause – to harness technology for the public good. The group involves geeks, hackers, public employees and activists willing to put their technological expertise – and political influence – on the line to make change happen. Their current initiative falls into the latter category and meets one of the group’s goals: to “lead a public discussion on open data and civic technology.”
Members of Open TC’s have mounted an aggressive campaign to raise candidates’ awareness of the basics. In a questionnaire sent to candidates for Minneapolis Mayor and City Council the group poses a lengthy list of questions intended to raise candidates’ concern for the implicit, even esoteric, details of what it takes to assure citizens’ access to downloadable city data, which is collected by, and for the public good.
The idea is basic: the city, like every public entity, collects mountains of data about virtually every function of city government, from crime statistics to street repair, from public transit patterns to who uses water resources, from building codes to neighborhood development. Historically, the massive data resources have been available but not accessible, i.e. residents need to make a formal request, and probably pay for, access. Technology can either facilitate or create barriers for public access to public information.
The movement to make public data accessible has taken on momentum as groups such as Open Twin Cities have stepped forward. Committed access advocates in cities throughout the nation are pushing public entities at every level to publish datasets on websites and data portals. They are actively demonstrating ways in which a concerned citizen, neighborhood group, or activist can download and manipulate the information that belongs to the people in the first place.
It is axiomatic within the movement that action requires knowledge and commitment of decision-makers to make change happen. Thus, the questionnaire to prospective elected officials (http://bit.ly/MplsOpenDataQuestions.) raises some probing questions that elected officials need to consider. The mailing includes some FAQs for candidates who may need a review of the concepts. Results, due by October 1, will be posted and shared with the media.
The intent of Open Twin Cities is to raise awareness and to generate discussion. It remains to members of the public to seize the opportunity to join the access dialog by letting the squadrons of candidates know that access matters to the voters and to their prospective constituents. Concerned citizens need not know the mechanics or how to make access happen within the city’s labyrinthine structures. The devil in the details remains to the experts. What the candidates need to know is that information matters, that good information leads to better decisions, and that the public, armed for action, will build a better community.
The bottom line is simple: public information in whatever format belongs to the people. The technology exists to conceal the information, to use it for internal purposes only, to let it lie fallow, or to give it life by putting it to work in the hands of caring residents. Informed residents offer the best hope – the only hope – of solving the city’s problems. Today’s challenge to elected officials is establish as a priority strategies to make good information accessible – useful – to constituents of good will committed, as every candidate purports to be, to the public good.