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 Committee Report

Committee Report #4


In City Council July 29, 2013

Councillor Leland Cheung, Chair  
Councillor Marjorie C. Decker  
Councillor Minka vanBeuzekom  

The Cable TV, Telecommunications and Public Utilities Committee conducted a public meeting on July 9, 2013 beginning at 7:12 p.m. at the Cambridge Coworking Center, 101 Main Street, Cambridge, MA.

The purpose of the meeting was to explore the development of an open data ordinance in the City of Cambridge. 

Present at the meeting were Councillor Leland Cheung, Chair of the Committee, Lisa Peterson, Deputy City Manager, Louis DePasquale, Assistant City Manager for Fiscal Affairs, Mary Hart, Chief Information Officer, Information Technology Department, Rebecca Rutenberg, Aide to Councillor Cheung and Paula M. Crane, Administrative Assistant, City Clerk's Office.

Also present were Harlan Weber, Richard Laskey, Ari Lev, Barry Walker, Kristen Merrill, Thad Kerosky, Nick Doiron, Rachael Stedman, Matt Cloyd, Code for Boston (CFB), Curt Savoie, Principal Data Scientist, City of Boston, Dan O'Brien, Research Director, Boston Area Research Initiative, Nii Armar, Joan Matsumoto, Deputy Government Innovation Officer, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, John Hawkinson, Saul Tannenbaum, Pam Decatur, Cambridge Innovation Center, Elsa Sze, Harvard Business School/Harvard Kennedy School, and Chris Whong, Socrata.

Councillor Cheung convened the meeting and explained the purpose.  He stated that this meeting was taking place off-site as part of an ongoing effort to bring the City Council into local neighborhoods and communities.  He stated that the City is in the process of re-evaluating how to better connect with residents.  He noted that the Gartner Report outlined recommendations for the City and that the implementation of some of those recommendations is ongoing.  He stated that at the last Cable TV, Telecommunications and Public Utilities Committee meeting there was a strong interest in an open data.  He stated he and City Manager Rossi agree that the next step in moving the City forward regarding data access is the implementation of an open data policy.  He provided the attendees with a list of brainstorming questions to use as a guideline in discussing this matter.  (Attachment A).  He stated that after the meeting he intends to create a Wiki which will compile the recommendations of the committee into a draft ordinance and crowd source the open data ordinance.  He stated that the Guidelines for Open Data Policies compiled by the Sunlight Foundation (Attachment B) would be a good resource throughout the brainstorming process and noted that the timeline going forward would be a follow-up committee meeting on August 15, 2013, an additional meeting, if necessary, in late August and an open data policy being introduced to the full City Council at the City Council meeting of September 9, 2013. 

Saul Tannenbaum stated that data is a resource.   The nature of a municipality is that what it does is of interest to its citizens.  He noted that cities are becoming more interactive with their residents by using technology via smart phones and applications.  He stated that there is a tremendous amount of innovation around Cambridge in terms of municipal government.  There have been attempts to open information up.  Cambridge can reinvent its information technology services and decide at a policy level that the engine of the city should be open to anyone who wants information. The reality is that people can do many things with data if it is available.  He told of a situation in New York City where there was odor emanating from the sewer system and because 311 data was available, the source of the odor was identified.  That is the creativity that comes with open data.  Councillor Cheung noted that the 311 pilot program is up and running in the city. 

Harlan Weber stated that he comes from the viewpoint of a technologist.  He stated that that attending this meeting is a group of volunteers who are highly motivated to use the talents they have developed for the good of the places where they live.  They want to help.  Right now they cannot help in Cambridge.  He stated that programmatically, from a data perspective, they don't know anything about the City of Cambridge.  He noted that things that are done in other municipalities and on the national level cannot be done in Cambridge because of the lack of access.  He stated that people are unable to tap into a vast amount of talent in Cambridge.  He stated that by opening data you are allowing developers within the community to help out.  The community can be leveraged to champion these technological developments only if they are armed with data - currently they are not.  From a citizen perspective, he urged the city to pursue the open data ordinance.  Councillor Cheung stated that he would like to move the conversation in the direction of the guidelines of open data.  He stated that it is important to know what the City Council should be focused on when reviewing a potential open data policy.  He challenged participants to consider what the most important considerations should be in the beginning stages of implementing an ordinance, what components should be prioritized, and what components, though important, may not be crucial in the beginning.

Ari Lev stated that Guidelines for Open Data Policies does not reflect what an open data policy does and can do.  He noted the need to recognize the difference between actual physical policy and what the policy means.  Saul Tannenbaum stated that there are existing open data policies in other municipalities that are two to three pages long and written at the general level of policymaking.   He stated that the Guidelines for Open Data Policies gets into the nitty gritty of implementation. 

John Hawkinson noted that open data is a mindset, and that part of that mindset is for City staff to consider themselves as custodians of data.  Open data polices will require people to think differently.   He stated that there are priorities such as GIS data but noted that this data is hard to obtain and that current City procedure is to charge $75 to acquire a CD.  He stated that GIS data is important because it is the basis of data.  He spoke about new systems versus older systems.  To take an existing system such as the City's Calendar of Events, there is no way to get data out usefully.  He stated that the new Inspectional Services system is somewhat on-line but it cannot be downloaded.  That is a problem.  He stated that GIS data is a high priority. 

Joan Matsumoto stated that what is going on is a culture change.  It is about understanding the culture of people who do not consider themselves to be data custodians, but are intuitively data guarders and instinctively seek to protect data.  The Information Technology Director has an inventory of data, some of which is sensitive. She stated the importance of integrating the idea that one of the values of open data is converting information into electronic records so there is not the need to have paper files as well as the issues of storage and retrieval of said paper files.  She stated the moving forward, the mindset needs to be that all information will be open in the future.  There is the need to speak in concrete and positive terms.  She noted that the City of Boston site is a reflection of what is possible.  She noted that Cambridge may not be the first but it certainly does not have to be the last in terms of open data. 

John Hawkinson noted the importance of ensuring that the people who produce the data feel part of the process.    

Curt Savoie stated that authority, governance and framework of standards are very important.  Legal requirements regarding privacy are an issue.  John Hawkinson stated the need for tools that make it easy, standardized and friendly.  Curt Savoie stated that all of the different sources of data will have their own difficulties in producing their records. 

Saul Tannenbaum stated that he is a taxpayer and he is asking the leadership to set a policy.  He will expect leadership to be the one informing the City staff.  He stated that City staff has heard these concerns for years and has not acted upon them.  He stated that currently there seems to be a swell of grassroots interest spawned by what is happening in other places. He stated that in Boston the innovation comes directly from the Mayor's Office as a constituent service piece.  He stated that the implementation will have many problems but once there is an open data policy there will be an implementation process.  He noted the need for oversight that the policy is being adhered to.

Dan O'Brien stated that the philosophy is fantastic.  There is also a practical side.  He noted that when looking at other cities and sites regarding mindful usage of data, the lesson is to start small with those who want to and have the capacity to work with you.  In Boston, they started by exploring 311 data to see what could be done with that information.  The maps have been a big win in measuring neighborhood characteristics in real time.  He stated that data can be shared and there is a purpose to sharing data.  He stated that you have to be willing to work on one thing at a time.  He stated that it is important to agree on general policy.    

Ari Lev stated that everyone wants open data.  He asked about concerns of City staff.  He noted that this is the time for feedback.  Councillor Cheung stated that his impression is that we are in the midst of trying to figure out how to use public data but noted that it is new territory for the City.  The City is trying to chart a new direction for how data is used and how to teach people to establish the culture in the City.  He asked what concerns City staff might have.

Lisa Peterson questioned whether all data needs to be in a standard format. Saul Tannenbaum stated that there is a standard format for certain data.  He noted that there is other data that is very specific.  He stated that information technology is very dynamic and will be forever changing.  He stated that as new City systems come online, there are things that must be considered and adapted. 

John Hawkinson stated that the most important thing is to have the data accessible.  Without access, nothing can be done.

Ari Lev stated that the City of Cambridge Information Technology Department does their job well.  He stated that open data does not need to be the way the public wants it, it should be what the City needs.  Chris Whong stated that PDF documents are not helpful to data scientists.  He stated that machine readability is the name of the game.  Harlan Weber stated that he wants to let City staff know that the Code for Boston is a great place to ask questions.  He urged the City staff to feel comfortable asking questions.  He noted that there are a lot of qualified people that can answer questions and concerns.  Code for Boston wants to help people move into the mindset of data sharing.  The power of doing things through technology lets you reach many people efficiently.  As a City you can maximize the good the people can do.  He stated that when the MBTA made their data available, 65 applications were developed to track busses real time, but only three of them were made by the MBTA - the rest were developed by members of the community

Councillor Cheung asked about open data challenges that were encountered by Boston.  Curt Savoie responded that Boston started with small projects.  He noted that Boston does not have an ordinance on open data.  There is no mandate.  He noted that Boston has a performance manager who is the key person using data internally and holding departments accountable.  Boston began doing things with iPhone applications that have received good press.  This started to shift more departments to get on board.  He stated that from a strategic sense, information technology as a whole has moved to more enterprised architecture by way of standardized servers and new platforms.  As enterprise level systems come online, this provides more capability to do things.  You have to take opportunities where you see them and use those opportunities as leverage.  This creates incentive for people to want to get involved.  Once people use it, trust is built.  Saul Tannenbaum stated that within the Boston structure there are champions for this and noted that the mindset for open data starts at the top.  Curt Savoie stated that in New York, Mayor Bloomberg sets goals, writes order, and then everyone jumps.  He stated that unlike New York, Mayor Menino is working from the bottom up. 

Joan Matsumoto stated that a way to bring enthusiasm to the open data concept is by creating competition.  A good way to do this is to challenge City departments to come with a data set.  This initiative could be open and unshaped or very direct.  This may be a way to discover issues of concern. 

Harlan Weber stated that he watched a presentation about research and analysis on 311 data.  This research can help City departments figure out what they are doing.  Dan O'Brien stated that it is hard work to make data open.  They discovered that everything was built organically.  He noted that there is a decent amount of legwork necessary to sift through the data and run queries to figure out how the information is organized, and what lies within the dataset...  They discovered that there is an interchange of knowledge.  The first month of work may just be finding out what is in files. 

Richard Laskey stated that open data is about sustainability and interoperability. He stressed the need for all incoming software and programs to be held to a set of standards that can lend themselves to open data eventually.  Curt Savoie stated that more times than not, the technology used for a certain line of business cannot handle it.  One department that they are trying to monitor is transportation.  He stated that they ran into an obstacle when looking at health inspection standards because Boston does not have a grade.  The standard is created around a certain framework.   They are going to be moving to housing inspection information but it is just coming online so they don't have data yet.  Saul Tannenbaum emphasized the importance of an open data policy.  He stated that technology gets refreshed over time.  If a policy is in place, this would mandate specs written in such a way that systems are being built that are better able to have open data.  That is a technological mind of reasoning that speaks to the culture shift.

Mary Hart stated that it is clear that people want access to data.  She stated that it is exciting that the City has created a strategic plan.  She noted that the Gartner Report is a baby step in the process and noted that the IT Department is optimistic moving forward. 

Elsa Sze stated that every city is different.  She stated that she has realized that each city and town operates on different principles.  She stated that she feels that the priority should be on releasing data and then work on the policy issue.   Regarding incentive, she questioned if Cambridge has a stat program related to performance measurements.  She noted that a stat program would be good step as it may help city departments.  She noted that the Harvard Ash Center for has a successful model for cities to emulate how to build open data and civic innovation.  

Harlan Weber again offered the assistance of the Code for America Brigade Network.  He noted that they can provide case studies and contact information to the city. 

Mary Hart stated that she has been in touch with the Ash Center.  She stated that it is essential for the City to have time to react.  The strategic plan is being created.  She noted that there is information that is ready for prototype.  Saul Tannenbaum stated that the problem is that developing a strategic plan without considering open data creates a dichotomy that shouldn't exist.  If the City Council votes on an open data policy, that will be a message to City staff.  He stated that he is in favor of multiple tracks of service.  Sustainability means that this policy is built into the strategic plan.  To say that a policy is a distraction from a strategic plan is a problem.  Councillor Cheung stated his belief that small projects and ways to get easy "wins" can be used to aid in the cultural shift.  He stated that the policy needs to be scaled for a city the size of Cambridge.    

Ari Lev stated that he disagreed with Saul Tannenbaum.  He said that he does not know if there is a logistical way to implement this policy step by step.  It would not be difficult to have a policy that states open data is important.  He asked if there is a way to meet with someone within the City staff to investigate channels as to how citizens use open data.  Ms. Hart stated that she has data on a DVD (GIS Data) which is accessible to the public.  She stated that she has talked to Socrata (Chris Whong) and Elsa Sze.  She noted that positive strides are being made but time is essential.  She noted that in the meantime, she would be happy to look into GIS data to determine what can be done with that information.    

Harlan Weber noted that it is important for the people who are creating the data to be excited about the sharing of that data.  He stated that GIS data is a great place to start.

John Hawkinson stated that the policy is important.  He stated that the ordinance is a check.  It does not need to be extremely specific.  He stated the need for guidelines to be consistent with the policy.  He asked Ms. Hart why the information on the DVD is not available via the internet.  Councillor Cheung stated that he would like to stay focuses on the big picture as opposed to specific inquiries.  He noted that will be the process moving forward. 

Harlan Weber stated that new information should apply to open standard.  Having something that ensures compliance as part of the procurement process is good.  He stated that policy will be informed as it evolves.  Ms. Hart stated that much of the City's data is in standard format which is good news.  She stated that when new applications are purchased, we take into consideration future needs.  She stated that the permitting system is in-house.  Data is in one department and is in a system that is forward-facing and accessible.  She stated that the City bought a good system that was meant to be forward-facing to the public.  She noted that there is the perception of a lack of transparency and that the City has tried to reverse that perception in the last six months.  Harlan Weber offered assistance in setting up a data portal for GIS data.  He stated that all of the developers at the Code for Boston are developers who do this work professionally.  He stated that this is a standing offer. 

Lisa Peterson stated that as it relates to a cultural shift, detailed policy is important.  She stated that it is important for the City Council to have a discussion an open data policy.  She stated that in terms of data sets, the City will try to make more data accessible but noted that time to assess this issue is essential.  She stated that this issue should be discussed in the E-Gov Executive Committee. 

Richard Laskey noted that the fact is that the City does have a budget with a certain amount of people that can work on this for a certain number of hours.  It is about reorientation of services that should be provided.  Lisa Peterson stated that privacy concerns are an issue when thinking about barriers.  Councillor Cheung stated that he would love to hear more about what Boston is doing regarding data sharing.  Curt Savoie noted that Boston schools and police have their own IT infrastructure.  He stated that the data he has is not student or criminal information as there is a legal framework regarding publishable information.  There are data fields that are published on the data portal.  There is data that is not given to anyone such as some information from 311 calls.  He stated that sensitive information is not published.  He stated that he looks at data and then sits with the owners of that data.  He noted the importance of working with owners who know their data intimately.  That is the best you can do with a lot of the information.  Councillor Cheung questioned if information can be coded ahead of time as it relates to personal data.  Curt Savoie responded that they do not want to publish everything so it comes down to the dataset and how it is built.  It is then coded as necessary.  Dan O'Brien stated that the theme is that working with data can be a lot of work.  Leveraging partnerships in the community is valuable.  One of the great things about our region is that there is a lot of human capital to attack these projects.  This human capital can bring skill sets that are not necessarily inside the building.  He noted that much work will need to go into the critical thinking but that work can be leveraged.  He affirmed that partnerships are a crucial piece to this sharing of data. 

Harlan Weber stated that private data and sensitivity of such is what should be put into the open data policy.  This policy can be defined for the City of Cambridge.  Joan Matsumoto stated that piloting of the project is important.  A pilot project will add more maturity to the policy.  Saul Tannenbaum stated that although he is pressing for an immediate open data policy, he know that City staff has not had to deal with this type of thing, and recognizes that there is a whole set of skills, expertise and experience that will take time to develop.  This is how he separates policy from implementation. 

Harlan Weber stated that Cambridge has the opportunity to take a leadership position for comparably sized cities.  He stated that there is an opportunity for Cambridge to think critically and set the tone for other cities.  The work in Cambridge could be an example for other cities and towns. 

Louis DePasquale questioned if there is any type of roadmap that would be beneficial to the City of Cambridge as it moves forward when looking at the best type of information that could be available.  Curt Savoie stated that in Boston, he likes to work with departments that want to be involved in the process and that residents have been particularly interested in GIS, 311, public safety, health, building permits, citations, parking, infrastructure, and budget.  Chris Whong listed Socratic's top ten areas of interest in data sharing: crime, restaurant data, permits, 311, zoning, property tax, locations of public facilities, business listings, financial transparency and performance metrics.  Curt Savoie stated that 311 information sharing is easy.  There is no public safety information involved.  There are crime reports which do not include 911 data.  He stated that regarding financial transparency, Boston was hit hard by the Massport grade of D-.  He noted that Mayor Menino was not pleased with this rating so the Chief Financial Officer and Chief Information Officer are now building an open checkbook application to address this concern.  He stated that sometimes a bad grade is necessary to light a fire for change.  Mary Hart stated that part of the cultural shift will include the data guardians and encouraging people to view themselves as data stewards. Curt Savoie stated that the data is about people and the life of people within the City.  That becomes a key motivator in why data is put out.  Lisa Peterson stated that it is about delivering a service.  Curt Savoie stated that it is about democracy and engagement of the public, and is a unique way of allowing the City to tell its story. Matt Cloyd stressed that it is important for the City to introspect and consider what it hopes to improve, as you cannot improve what you can't measure.

Elsa Sze stated that open data is a means.  What will make sense is setting goals that are related to improving quality of life and aligning that with open data objective.  Another goal would be set up of an ecosystem of developers who would access certain types of data on a regular basis.  This is where the policy comes into play by setting goals for city staff to work towards implementation. 

Nick Doiron stated that there is always a conversation going on about your City in social media.  People want to see the City of Cambridge taking part in this conversation so that they are being informed by an authoritative voice.  He stated that data also needs the same authoritative voice from a City source, but that it is a bit more complicated. If data is posted in a way to be accessed and shared it then becomes authoritative and valuable.  The City can decide what it posts so it can be used as a tool.   

Harlan Weber stated that it is about people.  He stated that the number of applications for the City is not important.  Power and breadth of technology to enact change is what is important.  He stated that open data is a tool.  It is what helps people do their jobs better. He stated that to make change, we need data about the place where we want to make that change.

Councillor Cheung stated that there will be follow-up via e-mail regarding next steps.  Harlan Weber offered Code for Boston's assistance and guidance and noted that the group meets every Tuesday evening. 

Councillor Cheung thanked all attendees for their participation. 

The meeting adjourned at 9:02 p.m. 

For the Committee,

Councillor Leland Cheung, Chair
Cable TV, Telecommunications and Public Utilities Committee




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