Participant Post: Capitol Code and the Public Data Ecosystem

By: Roxanne Johnson

Yesterday I attended Capitol Code: an Open Data
Jam put on by the Secretary of State’s Office. The event was focused on
showcasing the possibilities of using public data to solve community problems,
drive innovation and entrepreneurship, and make information more accessible to
residents of Minnesota.

After a kick-off from Mark Ritchie, about 12 people pitched ideas of projects
to work on for the day. People pitched ideas like an app to tell people how
long their wait at the poll is going to be on election day, collecting social
media feeds for state legislators all in one place, mapping boundary water
canoe trips, and more. The group I ended up in was interested in collecting all
of the public data in the state in one place and making a kind of data gateway.

Our group ended up being three groups that partially merged; the data gateway
idea, an idea to use web applications for data visualizations, and making a
visual application that showed where our tax dollars go. We were tasked with
presenting our work at the end of the day and telling the larger group about
our problem, solution, work, data, and team bios. Our problem: public data in
Minnesota is not all in one place and in an accessible format.

Almost immediately we identified two major subproblems to our problem: the
problem for the state of hosting accessible data in one place, and the problem
for end users (in this case developers), which is how to find out about and get
access to the data available in a useful format.

After a bit of discussion, we decided to be two separate groups each working on
a subproblem, but together. One group focused on the more back-end problem of
collecting, hosting, and cataloging the data. The second group worked on an
idea of making a template for front-end analytics that would allow developers
to visualize the data more easily to see trends or just explore the data set.

Somewhere in our work, we grabbed onto the idea of the ecosystem- Bill Bushey
had used the word early in the day while talking about the vast system of data
the Census Bureau operates. The framework of an ecosystem of public data
allowed solutions to our two problems to fit into a bigger system together.
This system became a kind of elegant solution to the larger problem: making
data available and accessible in one place allows developers to use the data
easily and then share the data or lessons learned from the data with the public
taxpayers who financed the data collection. Having a single “store” to get data
from allows the state, who hosts the store, to gather analytics on data usage,
which can better inform future data collection and dissemination, which makes
things even easier for developers to do more in the future.

Since ecosystems work in loops, we decided to use Prezi in our presentation
back to the large group. Prezi allowed us to show the whole system and zoom in
to talk about details of each part and then show how the parts connect to the
larger system. You can find our Prezi

While other groups made applications or websites, we made a conceptual
framework that shows a cohesive way to think about a system of public data in
Minnesota. This framework allows us to see that a healthy system where each
piece is designed within the larger context of the system cold maximize the
benefit we gain from collecting the data in the first place. Increased access
and usability means that more people with different perspectives can use the
data to answer more diverse questions, leading to more complete knowledge and
increased engagement.

This framework also allows us to identify where the barriers are; in the
presentation Q&A, Dave answered a question about why this system hasn’t been
implemented yet by saying that the problem is probably not technical. It could
be political or organizational; in our discussion we had talked about how
creating this system requires champions to work across agencies, departments,
and the legislature.

I’m not a super technical person and I have to admit there were times that I
got lost in the conversations about APIs and the Javascript D3 library. That
said, I love working with conceptual frameworks, understanding the big picture
system, and connecting what individual experts say about their pieces of a
complex system. I also enjoy using tools, like Prezi, that have the
functionality to highlight the interconnectivity that we identified in the
system. I had a lot of fun with our group and felt like we each contributed
very different things, which I like to think of as a mini-version of what we
identified to be as necessary to build this kind of integrated, healthy public
data ecosystem.

Some of the cool examples we looked at:

This post was originally posted on Open Twin Cities