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Discussing Technology and Open Data at the Woodstock Digital Media Festival

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On November 1st, the Vermont Digital Economy Project will be facilitating a discussion at the Woodstock Digital Media Festival on open data, a subject that will be introduced during a presentation by Eddie Tejeda. Eddie is a 2012 Code for America Fellow and co-founder of OpenOakland, a civic innovation organization that brings together coders, designers, data geeks, journalists, and city staff to collaborate on solutions to improve how our local government serves all citizens of Oakland.

Towns and cities across the world have begun to allow free and public access to data, and the ideas and processes behind this access can and are being applied to Vermont. Within Vermont, this conversation has taken shape through an Open Data conference earlier in October and with the announcement that the state of Vermont plans to make 10 sets of data open to the public as a pilot project into Open Data.

There are many people within the state who are invested in using this information to improve the efficiency of communication between governments and citizens. People may find they could benefit from easily accessible data, such as knowing the amount of trash collected, the number of elderly citizens on social security benefits in their town, or the basic financial information on how their governments are run. Conversely, people in government who may feel overwhelmed by the amount of information they are being requested to provide, may find that by opening up access to that data, they open themselves up to help from a new cadre of volunteers and developers. Crowdsourcing answers to difficult issues, from trash cleanup to keeping fire hydrants accessible, can result in creative and simple solutions that help citizens and governments alike.

Since our workshop builds on the presentation by Eddie Tejeda, He shared a little about his work with us:

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For the past few years I’ve been involved in a national movement that’s helping local governments use modern web technologies to make information about the work they are doing available to the public and promote civic engagement.

My entry to this world came in 2012 when I was chosen as a Code for America Fellow. I worked on a project with the City of New Orleans. My team’s residency in the city was packed with dozens of meetings not only with city staffers, but also with community groups, journalists, and local technologists. We saw residents who were capable and cared about their city, but who encountered a bottleneck when they tried to get information from City Hall.

But city staff were trying to do good work. It just happened that their technical infrastructure made it so that very simple questions – such as the status of a blighted house, or what the difference was between two proposed budgets – was difficult to process. In their pockets they carried with them computers that were often more powerful than the ones they used at work. And yet at work, many public servants do not have the tools they need to complete their work.

In the end, residents were frustrated and distrustful of their government, and city staff felt helpless and overwhelmed.

What my fellowship team discovered was that with our skills we could be of help. The information people needed, technically speaking, could be resolved by a simple search query, but someone had to build it. In just a couple of months we created a property visualization tool for New Orleans that has already had a positive impact on the way that residents interact with city staff. In a similar spirit, I’m now volunteering in my hometown of Oakland to help create visualizations for the mayor’s budget that helps bring more people into the budget discussion.

This new form of civic engagement is part of a growing civic tech movement that has spread from cities small and large, and even counties, to state and federal-level governments.

While the technology that we build often gets the attention, the real changes occur on a more personal level. What we’ve seen again and again is that the civic technologists are working towards helping restore the trust between residents and their government. When residents can access the information they need quickly, they are able to become better stewards of their city. When city staff are not buried under paperwork and overlapping requests, then they can focus on their jobs, and even innovate.

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