Expert to evangelize in Pittsburgh for open data

Speaker sees chance for more transparency

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The man in charge of making Philadelphia's public data easier to access for residents and software developers alike is coming west Thursday to discuss what can be done in Pittsburgh, where data sets are plenty but accessibility is not.

Mark Headd, chief data officer for the city of Philadelphia, will speak at the University of Pittsburgh, hosted by the University Center for Social and Urban Research. An evangelist for openness whose first year has seen marked progress toward greater transparency in the City of Brotherly Love, Mr. Headd believes Pittsburgh already has all the ingredients for success.

"Pittsburgh has lots of technologists and lots of people in universities," he said. "Pretty much everywhere you see an open data strategy, you saw something that started modestly."

"Open data" has officially achieved buzzword status among government leaders -- eclipsed only by its corporate brother, "Big Data" -- who marvel at how quickly released public information can filter into a city's software community and result in useful apps for their citizens.

Across the country, cities have dedicated whole departments to opening access to software developers and residents, with many, like Mr. Headd's, releasing thousands of data sets on crime, property and other civic issues. They're already seeing dividends: After Philadelphia's public transit authority released a trove of data and held a weekend hackathon with local developers two years ago, it officially adopted a community-built app helping riders catch the next train the next year.

Who's running the show in Pittsburgh? Well, Robert Gradeck, who isn't even paid by the city.

Mr. Gradeck, along with his colleagues at UCSUR, operates the Pittsburgh Neighborhood & Community Information System, a massive database of property information covering Pittsburgh and beyond. The team pulls data from public sources and helps community development groups visualize problem spots in the city and Allegheny County.

Though he's built good relationships with department heads at both levels, Mr. Gradeck hasn't seen the top-level leadership needed to create a division like Mr. Headd's in Philadelphia, which could spearhead the release of civic information.

In open data, the university group is one of the few players in town -- and it's getting tired of playing alone.

"We take data and make it available, but we're really doing a lot of the work for government," Mr. Gradeck said. "Our resources aren't there to do that at scale."

That soon may change. The Pitt researcher is hoping to bring a Code for America brigade to Pittsburgh, setting software developers on fellowships to work on hacking the city's civic data.

And Pittsburgh Mayor-elect Bill Peduto has bought into the Big Data buzz, directing one of his administration's transition teams to set a strategy. Debra Lam, his chief innovation and performance officer, calls public data the city's "social infrastructure," likening it to the roads and bridges that make up Pittsburgh's physical infrastructure.

Her challenge? Making sure everyone in the city have the ability to use public data.

"One thing I care about a lot is making sure that open data is empowering the community," she said. "It's making sure all segments of the population have access, and in turn have the tools to do something about it."

Mr. Headd's talk at noon Thursday at the O'Hara Student Center, 4024 O'Hara St., Oakland, is free and open to the public.

Andrew McGill: or 412-263-1497.

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