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South Bend mayor: City leads ‘open-data’ effort

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South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg said there were plenty of reasons the city decided to embrace an open-data policy, putting as many public records as possible online with a pioneering city website, Open Data South Bend.

Chiefly, the data belongs to the public. “We do it in their name, they pay for it, and the information and findings ought to be made accessible,” Buttigieg said in an interview.

But another reason is to cut through the bureaucracy that exists when using Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act, the official vehicle for residents to request public records from government stewards. Buttigieg said that process – filing a specific, formal request and waiting for a determination of whether the record may be released – can be cumbersome and time-consuming for the government and the person making the request.

“I’ve been mayor just over a year-and-a-half. In that time we’ve had about 2,000 APRA claims,” Buttigieg said. While the city’s not been cited with a violation from those claims, “That’s 2,000 times a lawyer, being paid as a lawyer, has had to deal with a request. … There’s a real potential savings for the city if we can avoid the request by putting the information out there in the first place,” the mayor said.

The Open Data South Bend site launched about two weeks ago as a work in progress, Buttigieg said. “I do think it puts us ahead of a lot of peer cities around the state, and hopefully it becomes an example.”

Go online and you’ll find maps of abandoned properties, zoning maps, centerline street maps, streetlight maps, park and bikeway maps and code enforcement maps, among others. If you’re more interested in finding out how the city’s spending money or how much Buttigieg or any other city employee earns, it’s there in databases that easily can be sorted, downloaded and filtered.

The site also collects feedback from users on public records they would like to see online.

Buttigieg said much of the credit for the open-data initiative goes to the city’s vendor, Socrata, which launched the site, as well as Code for America volunteers who’ve been working with the city and have proposed open-data steps the city could take. Socrata is the software provider for South Bend’s cloud-based open data system. Code for America volunteers have been working with the city primarily in trying to gather data about abandoned and vacant properties.

The city announced the open-data website Aug. 22, and since then there have been thousands of views of data sets. South Bend initially released 12 datasets and 10 Geographic Information System maps to the portal, but others since have been added.

“South Bend is joining an elite group of open-data pioneers who are using the latest technologies to make public data more accessible and streamline collaboration between internal departments,” Socrata president and CEO Kevin Merritt said in announcing the site’s launch. He said the city was “empowering the citizens with data and tools they can use to get involved and find practical ways to improve life for everyone in South Bend.”

Some information still is protected from public view, but Buttigieg said anything that already ought to be accessible ought to be accessible online. He said the system will be useful for city employees as well as the general public, and it might have benefits beyond embracing transparency.

“We’re living in a time when big discoveries are being made just by slicing and dicing data, so there could be information we don’t have the capability in-house to analyze,” he said. “It could even lead to a business idea.”



 

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