Experiments in open data: Baltimore Edition

A lot of my open gov energy of late has been focused on replicating a technique pioneered by Max Ogden (creator of PDXAPI) to convert geographic information in shapefile format into an easy to use format for developers.

Specifically, Max has pioneered a technique for converting shapefiles into documents in an instance of GeoCouch (the geographic-enabled version of CouchDB).

I was thrilled recently to come across some data for the City of Baltimore and since I know there are some open government developments in the works there, I decided to put together a quick screencast showing how open data – when provided in an easily used format – can form the basis for some pretty useful civic applications.

The screencast below walks through a quick demonstration of an application I wrote in PHP to run on the Tropo platform – it currently support both IM and Twitter use.

Just send an address in the City of Baltimore to one of the following user accounts along with a hashtag for the type of location you are looking for:

  • Jabber / Gtalk: baltapi@tropo.im
  • Twitter: @baltimoreAPI

This demo application interacts with a GeoCouch instance I have running in Amazon EC2 – you can take a look at the data I populated it with by going to baltapi.com and accessing the standard CouchDB user interface. I haven’t really locked this instance down all that tight, but there really isn’t anything in it that I can’t replace.

Besides, one of the nice things about this technique is how easy it is to convert data from shapefile format and populate a GeoCouch instance. Hopefully others with GIS datasets will look at this approach as a viable one for providing data to developers. (If anyone has some shapefiles for the City of Baltimore and you want to share them, let me know and I’ll load them into baltapi.com.

There are a number of people in Baltimore pushing for an open data program from their city government, and I have heard that there are some really cool things in the pipeline. I can’t wait to see how things develop there, and I want to do anything I can to help.

Hopefully, this simple demo will be useful in illustrating both the ease with which data can be shared with developers and the potential benefit that applications built on top of open data can hold for municipalities.

About Mark Headd

Mark Headd is the former Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia, serving as one of the first municipal Chief Data Officers in the United States, and was also Director of Government Relations at Code for America. He currently works with civic technologists and open data advocates as a Developer Evangelist for Accela, Inc. A coder and civic hacking veteran, he has worked as both a hands-on technologist and as a high-level policy advisor. Self taught in programming, he holds a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, and is a former adjunct instructor at the University of Delaware’s Institute for Public Administration teaching a course in electronic government.

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