Get smart: Local group calls for open data policy

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Lucas Ames, creator of Smart Cville, hopes to leverage technology to make Charlottesville a better place to live. Photo by Ron Paris Lucas Ames, creator of Smart Cville, hopes to leverage technology to make Charlottesville a better place to live. Photo by Ron Paris

People actually want to know how much compost is being dropped off at City Market, Lucas Ames was surprised to learn. The creator of Smart Cville, a year-old website that publishes local data, sent a letter to City Council April 12 to ask the city to adopt an open data resolution.

Ames, the man with the plan, says the overall goal of the resolution is to foster easy access to public information and encourage civic innovators to make use of the data that is available to them. Because, after all, by 2050, about 70 percent of people will live in cities.

These growing populations, says Ames, are placing greater demands on city services. With an open data policy in which public information is made freely available on the Web in a machine-readable format, locals could rely less on their government for access to info and take matters of improving city life into their own hands, without making formal requests that Ames calls burdensome to the requestee and city staff.

With machine-readable data, Ames says “citizens can use it to create really cool apps and services” that include everything from where farmers markets are located to budget visualizations, like the one Ames published on Smart Cville’s site. The visualization helps users see where their tax money is allocated, based on their yearly tax contribution and using raw data provided by the city.

“The data is pretty much buried in one long, hard-to-understand PDF,” Ames says. “The average citizen is like ‘what?’”

Smart Cville makes those numbers easier to understand, Ames says, and he hopes to see more projects like the budget tool come from the proposed open data resolution.

“It’s amazing what citizens are willing to do,” Ames says, noting the opportunity for UVA students to get creative with open data. “We have a tremendous entrepreneurship spirit in this town. Let’s open it up and let people play.”

Smart Cville, which consists of Ames and a small board of advisers, will soon reach nonprofit status. The group’s larger goal is to “leverage technology to make Charlottesville a better place to live,” Ames says.

In 2014, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe launched an online open data portal called Data.Virginia.gov to “provide easy access to Virginia’s open data and keep Virginians informed of major initiatives that take advantage of big data,” according to a press release. The governor also called it “empowering data that can be used by citizens to make more informed decisions, by innovators to build cutting-edge applications and by community stakeholders to plan smarter projects.”

Like McAuliffe’s initiative, the resolution Ames proposes is similar to that of other cities with open data policies like Portland, Austin and San Diego.

Since Smart Cville’s inception, Ames says website traffic is up and that interest among citizens is there.

Hundreds of people have checked out the site’s compost collection data and the numbers on other sustainability movements, like this year’s Fix A Leak Week. “Data and education transparency might be able to help those programs along and, at the same time, make our city more sustainable,” he says.

Check out the website at smartcville.com.

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