Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Open Data in France and the U.S.

Open Data is a movement to make information that is stored and managed by governments open and freely available to the public.  This morning at the Personal Democracy Forum here in Paris I saw two excellent examples of this in action that have the same spirit even though they are an ocean apart.

Kevin Hauswirth, who gave one of keynote speeches, works for Mayor Rahm Emanuel of the city of Chicago in the state of Illinois in the U.S.  Mayor Emanuel seems to be very serious about technology and about transparency. Hauswirth is part of a technology team in the mayor's office that includes a Chief Data Officer, a Chief Technology Officer, as well as a Social Media Director.

One of their many projects is called the City of Chicago Data Portal. There are 20 million rows of data on this site and you can find out everything from how well your neighborhood restaurants did when the Food Inspector stopped by to crime data, school performance and statistics on unscheduled absences for certain public service workers.

The data is public and anyone interested in writing an application that taps into these databases is quite welcome to do. The city, said Hauswirth, actually holds "hackathons" where they reveal the data they have to programmers and encourage them to come up with creative ways of making that data meaningful to the general public.

Something very similar is happening in France but at the highest levels of government. The site is called data.gouv.fr. Here is the Prime Minister, François Fillon, announcing the opening of the portal yesterday:


At the Forum today the site was the object of a roundtable discussion that included Romain Lacombe (Etalab), Claire Gallon (Libertic), Agnes Verdier-Molinié (Ifrap) and François Bancilhon (Data Publica).

It is work in progress and it will take time for all the public data to be collected and put on-line. This is just a first version. However what is up already is quite impressive: 352,000 data sets published by 90 government entities. About half the data available, said M. Lacombe, comes from Agriculture and Education but there is also data on crime, schools, employment, health organizations and so on. The data is in raw form (it has not been transformed in any way) and can be downloaded into a CSV or an XLS file.

To those of you with privacy questions (and I know this is of serious concern to Europeans) it appears that all this French and U.S. data is already publicly available and no one is breaking or changing any laws. The difference is that in the past the only people who could get access to it were people who knew the system or who had contacts in the system willing to go to the time and trouble to provide it.

Even so I'm sure that some people will find this troubling. Hauswirth admitted that some folks working in the public sector in Chicago didn't appreciate having their positions and salaries posted for all to see. I know some politicians in France are not going to enjoy getting impertinent questions based on the revealed data. Nonetheless it is happening and it is the first stone in an edifice being built with technology called Open Government. Both François Fillon and Rahm Emanuel seem to think this is a fine idea and if it doesn't scare them then it doesn't scare me.


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