Politics & Government

Civic hacking group in Wichita pursues open data policy

Balanced Comp’s Seth Etter is part of Open Wichita, a “civic hacking” group that is pushing for an open data policy in Wichita city government. (May 20, 2015)
Balanced Comp’s Seth Etter is part of Open Wichita, a “civic hacking” group that is pushing for an open data policy in Wichita city government. (May 20, 2015) File photo

A civic hacking group wants the Wichita City Council to adopt an open data policy to promote transparency in government spending.

Open Wichita, started earlier this year, aims to solve community problems and increase government transparency through public information.

Its organizer, Seth Etter, says the proposed policy is modeled after what other cities are doing. The group wants to work with the city to release data on things like the budget, water use and transit routes, among other things.

“There’s a lot of data that the government collects that legally can be accessed by anyone in the public, but with the tools they use to collect it and the way it’s stored, it takes a lot of work to procure those documents and release them,” Etter said.

“With the data being open, citizens – including Open Wichita – can build a lot of tools on top of that, extract that data and make better decisions for a better-informed public.”

Part of the policy is for the council to affirm the importance of open data and to affirm that the city will make information as open and accessible as possible.

“I’m fully in support of it. We need an open data policy,” said City Manager Robert Layton. “I’ve been visiting with some other cities. One of the things they said is it has to be meaningful and it has to be driven by users.”

One idea, Layton said, is to create two divisions in the city’s IT department, one for daily operations and another for innovations, like open data platforms.

Ideally, the city could have a platform for citizens, neighborhoods and organizations to generate their own reports for things that affect them, such as crime, Layton said.

He said he would like to have an open data policy for the City Council to consider in the first quarter of 2016.

But implementing some of the policies that Open Wichita proposes won’t happen so fast.

“The good thing is the policy doesn’t really talk about timelines,” said Mike Mayta, IT director for the city, who said he supports having an open data policy.

The city has plans to replace three IT systems: utility billing for water and sewer use, human resources and finance, Mayta said.

A new utility billing system should be in place by August.

But the new system that will support both the human resources and finance departments will take longer. A vendor should be selected in June, and full implementation could take up to two years.

The city is asking citizens, as well as members of Open Wichita, what kind of data they would like to see so it can narrow down what information to provide, Mayta said.

“Some cities barf out a lot of data, then it’s never used,” Mayta said. “With the resources and constraints we have, that’s not prudent.”

And using vendors like Socrata, which gives governments a platform to share their data, can be costly, he said.

Part of the proposed policy states the city should look for opportunities to use open source technology whenever possible. Open source is generally free software that can be downloaded, copied and changed by anyone. Using open source software, Etter said, could save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars over time.

“Software contracts for government are well-known for being extremely overpriced,” Etter said. “You can look at HealthCare.gov as an example.”

A 2014 Bloomberg Government analysis of vendor contracts for the health insurance website found it cost about $2.1 billion.

Etter said the group would like to see the city’s mapping data, among other things, using open source software. It is not saying everything should be open source, he said.

Layton said open source software can also have problems, such as not being able to handle complex data sets in a timely manner or not being user-friendly.

Kelsey Ryan: 316-269-6752, @kelsey_ryan

If you go

The next Open Wichita hack night is 5:30 p.m. Dec. 10 at The Labor Party, 216 N. Mosley.

For more information, visit www.meetup.com/openwichita or www.openwichita.com.

Draft policy

To read Open Wichita’s draft open data policy, visit https://t.co/flEtZjJsuO.

Potential open data projects

Open Wichita members have picked several projects they would like to do with public data, including:

▪ Bus ICT: A mobile website showing where buses are around the city in real time, as well as planned routes.

▪ ICT Food Circle: A directory of farms and other sources of local and organic food.

▪ Infant Info: Resources for different services around Wichita to help citizens with infants.

▪ Voter Turnout: A place for voters to find information on upcoming elections and candidates.

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