On the Records: A Data Challenge for Texas

What are state and local governments in Texas doing to make raw data available to the public? Not much.

Sites like D.C. Bikes and Stumble Safely present government data with innovative applications.
Sites like D.C. Bikes and Stumble Safely present government data with innovative applications.

Paul Huggins asked us this morning via Twitter what state and local governments in Texas were doing to make raw data available to the public. The answer is not much.

Huggins' query came after reading an interesting story this morning in The New York Times about the open-data trend across the country. Here's a sample: 

SAN FRANCISCO — A big pile of city crime reports is not all that useful. But what if you could combine that data with information on bars, sidewalks and subway stations to find the safest route home after a night out?

In Washington, a Web site called Stumble Safely makes that possible. It is one example of the kind of creativity that cities are hoping to mobilize by turning over big chunks of data to programmers and the public.

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Many local governments are figuring out how to use the Internet to make government data more accessible. The goal is to spawn useful Web sites and mobile applications — and perhaps even have people think differently about their city and its government.

In addition to Stumble Safely, the story noted a site called CleanScores, which tracks restaurant inspections in various cities, and After School Special, which combines data from San Francisco schools, libraries and restaurants. The story could have also noted gems like EveryBlock, which tracks crime and news in numerous cities by neighborhoods. 

These sites are possible because cities like San Francisco and New York make raw, government data available to the public. The federal government also has a (relatively limited) site called Data.gov. There isn't anything comparable, really, in Texas. Sure, some agencies — the Texas Ethics Commission, Texas Legislative Council and Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, among others — make data available. But often it's still inaccessible or stuck behind an agency search engine or requires an open-records request. Some cities are trying. Houston has a campaign-finance database, for example. (I wish you luck trying to use it). 

There are, of course, people in these agencies who want to make records public. Perhaps, freed of their bureaucracies and legacy computer systems, they might be open to Web APIs so that developers could build applications. Earlier this year, I attended the Personal Democracy Forum conference, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg challenged developers to create applications with his city's data.

I don't hear any elected officials doing that in Texas. At least not yet.

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