By Sarah Geegan
The call for open data, or publicly available data, has been widespread throughout Lexington government. Mayor Jim Gray included the initiative in his election platform, and the Urban County Council agreed that open data is important for Lexington Fayette Urban County development.
UK geography Professor Matt Wilson is leading the initiative from the College of Arts and Sciences.
"Currently, Lexington Fayette Urban County Government charges a fee for access to spatial data," Wilson said. "So, even though it is a taxpayer supported entity, they try to save costs by charging fees to get access to what would normally be publicly available data."
The current data policy encompasses data sets ranging from bus routes and bike lanes to restaurant evaluation scores-- information useful to citizens, businesses and nonprofit organizations. However, the open-data policy would make this information obtainable, free of charge.
"Most municipalities recognize that there is an economic incentive to making data available," Wilson said. "It takes up less bureaucratic time in terms of setting up contractual arrangements to make the data available, and businesses and nonprofits find the data really useful for supporting their core operations."
To make the initiative viable, Wilson joined forces with a nonprofit advocacy group called OpenLexington. Founded by Chase Southard, a former research analyst in the UK College of Medicine, the group aims to build tools and educate the public on the importance of open data.
"The transformation of a city towards transparency and their commitment to publish data in a manner consistent with the principles of open data allows for a number of interesting things to happen," Southard said. "First, any citizen can now, if they choose, inspect the actions of their government. Second, businesses, researchers and journalists no longer have to file expensive freedom of information requests to gain access to data. Last, machine readable, programmatic access to data can be used to build innovative, new, or plainly useful applications."
These applications would be convenient avenues for utilizing data — for example, smart phone applications that exhibit restaurant inspection scores or bus routes.
In preparation for the legal mechanism of the initiative to launch, Wilson and Southard have developed a platform to make data available, using the resources of the College of Arts and Sciences. Southard will set up a server, borrowing the source code from a similar system, OpenDataPhilly, and use the college's infrastructure to store the data.
"From the college's perspective, we have the infrastructure to do this kind of work," Wilson said. "We have the technical expertise. OpenLexington is providing a great deal of technical support to help us program the server and get that arrangement set up. It's wonderful to have such a great support staff at Arts and Sciences that allows us to think in creative and collaborative ways with the city."
Wilson, Southard and Chad Cottle, a counterpart at the city, are developing other plans to advocate the initiative as well.
"The three of us are working to build something called CityCampLex," Wilson said. "It's structured like an un-conference; people just sort of show up and they work for a couple days together. The idea behind CityCampLex is to bring together people from the programming and technical hacking communities to work with the city, to figure out different kinds of applications that could be built on top of the Open Data resource."
CityCampLex will be possible with help from Code For America, an organization dedicated to bringing Web professionals together with governments to promote openness and efficiency.
Through a new program called Code for America Brigade, whereby volunteers "build a civic Web together," Lexington is among the first of about 50 cities in the U.S. that the organization will provide with technical infrastructure and resources to support events like CityCampLex.
"CityCampLex will help build on the previous momentum and further help and encourage Lexington to make steps towards publishing open data through volunteer action," Southard said. "We are planning for April, somewhere on UK's campus.
"Having access to data helps citizens, businesses and organizations make informed decisions. UK is full of enthusiastic professors, students and staff who want to contribute to this idea. Fortunately, UK has the capacity to foster ideas and make them realities."
To listen to a podcast, featuring Matt Wilson discussing his GIS Workshop Class, click here. This podcast was created by the College of Arts and Sciences.