DSW Panel Talks Colorado Open Data, Sees Opportunities, Challenges

Hackers, developers, and public servants came together during Denver Startup Week to discuss improvements that have been made, as well as challenges that exist, when it comes to Colorado’s publicly available data. The issues are at the core of broader trends in “big data,” open government, and finding new ways to help startups use the resources of government to build businesses while helping citizens.

The panel, titled “Untapped Treasure: Public Sector Data,” began with Arvada Deputy City Manager Michele Hovet discussing OpenColorado, an online portal she helped create in 2010 that contains 770 datasets on Colorado counties, the Denver Regional Council of Governments, and the Colorado Geological Survey.

Hovet was the CIO for the City of Arvada for over 17 years before developing the site, which grew out of CityCamp Colorado. “I was so tired of keeping all that data on my servers,” she said of Arvada becoming the state’s first city with an open online data catalogue. “Why put it behind a server where it electronically rots forever, rather than go out there and see what can be made of it?” Users can also grow the site by adding their own datasets, she said.

Panelist Joanne Cheng, a developer with Colorado Code for Communities, noted the group’s use of such data to create open source apps like OpenBike, which collects information from riders on routes based on qualitative measures like safety and scenery. “We’ve also created an API [application programming interface] that lets people query street closings in Denver,” she added. “Right now Denver only releases street closings by PDF, and by collecting the data, putting it into a database, and letting people access it by API, we make that data more accessible.”

Panelist Karen Suhaka, founder of Bill Track 50, which allows users to parse through federal and state legislation from all 50 states, is a longtime reseller of otherwise byzantine public data. She is successful in a niche local companies seem eager to fill as government transparency grows and consumer interest in understanding big data increases.

“About half the states put their bills out in PDF,” she explained of why she started Bill Track 50. “It cost me $200,000-$250,000 to get all of that data out of PDFs, and then load it into a database. This year, there’s been 130,000 bills proposed, almost 30,000 have passed. That’s a lot of new laws. It makes sense to keep track of it.”

Suhaka touched on a sensitive issue for many local developers who hope to profit from similar value-added data aggregators when she recounted a failed used-car comparison site she put together from Colorado DMV data in 2011. Initially she said the DMV charged her $60 for the data she received on a million or so cars that had changed hands during the course of a year. That price then increased to a prohibitive $60,000 due to a policy change, according to Suhaka.

Suhaka’s experience is exactly what Brian Gryth hopes to avoid in the future with the Secretary of State’s new Business Intelligence Center, where he serves as program manager. “My push is to eliminate the problem Karen had,” he said. “That all of the data we have, we push it onto Colorado.gov.”

The Center recently announced a business innovation challenge that it says is incentivizing the technology community to develop applications using public data that can benefit Colorado’s small businesses. Much of that data will come from Colorado Information Marketplace, an online portal with hundreds of state datasets.

Some developers contend the datasets themselves still need work. “Although the government’s done a better job of releasing it, there’s always a lot of cleanup, a lot inconsistency,” Cheng said, in response to a developer asking her whether she ever had trouble with the data sets.

Hovet reminded developers that there’s still no easy way to standardize data. “It’s an awesome endeavor, but because of all these pockets of government, it’s all at different levels of maturity,” she said.

Rachel Sapin is a staff writer at the Aurora Sentinel, reporting on city and state government. Follow @Rachelsapin

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