A city of Minneapolis plan to make available its databases to the public could lead to new cell phone apps, and help make city government more efficient.
The city has more than 450 different electronic databases that track everything from budgets to crime statistics to street maintenance. Some staffers, elected officials and self-described hackers are working on a plan to put that information on the Internet for anyone to use.
Minneapolis already publishes reams of statistics on the performance of city government. But Council Member Andrew Johnson said those charts and graphs are no longer good enough. He said there's now a demand for the raw data behind city's reports.
"Culture and expectations are shifting. You have now this smart phone in your hand and you can access everything at your fingertips, and people expect the ability to dive in, and have access to information," Johnson said. "The old models, the old way of doing things are no longer acceptable to a lot of folks."
For anyone who wonders whether any citizens are interested in wading through gigantic spreadsheets of government data, the answer is yes.
Every month, a group of computer programmers, web designers and researchers meet in a basement computer lab at the University of Minnesota to discuss ways to use computers and public data to make the world a better place.
"People want to do things for their community, when you get right down to it and you have this new group of citizens that have technology skills," said Bill Bushey, who founded the group about a year and a half ago. "And they're trying to figure out how to apply those skills to community, which is a fairly new concept."
This week's meetup drew about a dozen participants. Some talked about their projects. Others quietly tapped away at laptops.
Boyd Johnson, who has a day job as a payroll specialist, worked on an interactive map showing data he received from the Minnesota Secretary of State's Office.
"The purpose was to have an open-source, anybody can access it, way to look at where there are voter registration needs, so groups could go out and canvas and increase voter registration," Johnson said.
It's a project he enjoys.
"I'm a publicly minded person," Johnson said. "I want to see the well-being of Minnesota increase. That's something that gives me happiness."
The city of Chicago started posting its databases online in 2012, and since then, programmers have created websites to track the city's snowplows, train schedules, crime rate, economic growth and zoning rules.
Chicago IT consultant Derek Eder said many of the apps are easier-to-use versions of the city's own website. That's sparked a discussion about how the government uses technology, he said.
"Here are all these people outside of government, building these tools, doing it in their spare time, and doing things that are actually in a lot of ways much more usable and innovative than what typically the government solutions have been," said Eder, who leads an open data group in Chicago. "So there's a question there of 'why are we paying so much money for the official versions, when they're not as good as what these people are doing in their spare time for free?'"
Of course, opening up all the city-maintained databases in Minneapolis isn't necessarily free, either. The city has about 97,000 gigabytes of information — and it would take more than 1,500 iPhones to hold it all.
The data are spread across more than 450 different information systems and putting it online could be expensive, said Otto Doll, the city's chief information officer.
"That's going to be quite a bit of money," Doll said. "We're going to talk six digits to get all that storage."
Doll said another concern he's heard from some city departments is the data could be misconstrued or used in a way that might make the city look bad.
"They're concerned at times with people misinterpreting and/or misusing the information, because then they have to answer to it," he said.
But Doll expects much more good than bad to come out of the open data policy when it is finalized this summer.