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Capitol Code and the Public Data Ecosystem


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 here.

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: