Philadelphia's City Hall is an opaque mystery to most residents. We know there are thousands upon thousands of employees in there. We know taxpayers contribute $2.9 billion each year to run the place. But what, exactly, is city government doing?
As it turns out - in the case of least one department - plenty.
With little fanfare, the city last month began offering residents a firsthand look at the work of Licenses and Inspections employees, in the form of a clickable, interactive map at www.phila.gov/map.
At first glance, it's just dots. Icon after icon, laid atop Philadelphia's street grid.
But look a little bit closer, spend some time with the map, and it eventually becomes clear that this service simultaneously parts the curtains on a key city bureaucracy, and empowers neighborhood groups and activists.
What's more, this new service offers a tantalizing preview of a future city government that is altogether more transparent and, consequently, efficient, and effective.
Let me explain.
What I'm talking about here is data. And in the case of city government, data often represents the work product of city employees. How many abandoned and dangerous houses demolished? How many building permits issued? How many slumlords hit with citations?
For a very long time, the only ones who could get answers to such questions were reporters, the politically connected, and unusually persistent gadflies. Now, that information - and plenty more - is readily available to anyone with a web browser.
Which makes it possible to easily find out, in excruciating detail if you like, what L&I (with its $21 million budget and 286 employees) has been up to in your neighborhood. So, a check for accountability.
What's more, this newly available data are invaluable to community groups and activists. Local civics or CDCs looking to acquire property, or check on the status of a blighted property, no longer need to know the right person to get information. The data is just there, updated daily.
"We're giving the community access to the same information we have. And we think that will allow both the city and our community partners to work together better," said Carlton Williams, the commissioner of licenses and inspections.
If all goes as planned. L&I only represents the beginning. Last spring, Mayor Nutter issued an executive order instructing each city department to develop a plan to regularly release raw data. And in August, the city hired Mark Headd - a "civic hacker" with something of a national reputation - to fill the new post of chief data officer. Headd's job, in essence, is to ensure that city data is released into the wild. He's a data evangelist who firmly believes open data has the potential to redefine citizens' relationships with government. And he's very convincing.
"If you want an open government, one of the requirements is open data," said Headd. "Data is a by-product of almost everything we do as a city. Health inspections. Police response. There's data on all of it, and the idea that people should be able to quickly and easily access that data is important."
The potential is big and growing fast. As recently as a few years ago, there simply weren't the technological tools to make vast quantities of municipal data available to a typical resident in a comprehensible fashion. But that's changed.
There is an entire community of programmers - some motivated by profit, others by altruism - dedicated to turning government data into digestible products for consumers. No fewer than 20 iPhone apps convert SEPTA data into information commuters can use. And there's no reason why other public data can't be popularized in similar fashion.
Consider 311, the city's information and service-request call center. Across the country, cities have begun releasing their 311 data - calls, locations, time-to-satisfy-request, and so on - and Philadelphia is actively seeking a vendor to assist the city in making its raw 311 data available as well.
Civic hackers are using this open 311 data to create elaborate tracking programs that show you just how fast cities respond to service requests. There's even a 311 national data standard emerging, which, in theory, will enable intra-city comparisons. Just how does Philly's pothole filling operation compare with that of Boston?
That question, and bigger ones, were all but impossible to answer in past years. Soon, perhaps as quickly as a year or two from now, anyone with a smartphone may well be able to look up the answer in a few seconds.
Will any of this make it easier to fight City Hall? I don't know. But these tools - and the data they mine - will certainly make it easier to see what City Hall is up to.