Civic Hacking with Open JC

Buckle up, Jersey City…the express train towards more transparent government is leaving the station…and its name is Open JC.

Open JC

Founded in November 2013 by local residents Anna Lukasiak and Stephen Musgrave, Open JC hit the ground running with its Facebook pagemeet up group, and website, inviting anyone with an interest in open data, open source, and open government to join its ranks (full disclosure: I joined in December).

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Its members’ skill sets include computer programming, web design, civic activism, the law, marketing and branding, accounting & financial analysis, and so on.  Open JC promotes the idea of “civic hacking,” which involves private and public sector collaboration to liberate data for the collective benefit of the community.  Oakland, CA and New York City are prime examples of cities who have invested heavily in open data.  Open JC holds regular general meetings and “hack nights” where members gather to work on individual or team projects.  One such project, the Jersey City PDF Budget Liberation project, earned Open JC first prize in January’s  PDF Liberation Hackathon.

Jersey City PDF Budget Liberation Project

The Budget Liberation project  is a computer program created by Anna Lukasiak that converts PDF budgets into digitized format.  The reason she created it is simple: to give Jersey City taxpayers greater ease of access to city budgets that are currently “locked” in PDF.  Consider the manual steps required around PDF budget files:

  • First you have to go to the Jersey City website where the budgets are stored in PDF format.
  • After opening the PDF file, you then have to manually type all the information into a spreadsheet program like Excel
  • Then you have to tick and tie the data to ensure all errors (which are inevitable with hand-typing data) are eliminated.
  • Only then can you start to actually analyze the information.

The Budget Liberation program automates all of this manual work; it “scrapes” the budget data from the PDF image, loads the scraped data into a database which then feeds into OpenSpending.org‘s free “money mapping” visualization software.  The best part is: Open JC did the work for the 2013 Jersey City budget, and now shares it with the community.  It’s very cool stuff…click here to see it in action and learn more.

There are three main takeaways here.  First, once the visualization is created, it can then be shared with the community.  Second, the visualization enables you to prioritize your time time understanding the data instead of decoding it.   Third, and perhaps most impactful, because Open JC’s budget work is open, free, and easily accessible, it can be leveraged by others in the community.  Open JC is creating a virtuous cycle of civic partnership, founded on openness, transparency, and factual data.  

Which leads me to a call to action related to our public schools.

Public Schools Data

Anna and I are collaborating on a public schools team within Open JC; our goal is to solicit feedback from the community about what we want to know vis a vis public schools data, to digitize as much of that data as possible, and to make it available and transparent to the public.  There is a lot of data involved here: state school reports, state funding aid reports, city funding, facilities data, and much more.  Your role can be whatever you have time and interest for – such as attending a focus group aimed at understanding what people want to know – to more time intensive, which can involve helping to create datasets, building the tools, and socializing them.  If you’re interested, please contact me and please explain any interest you have.

Finally, if you want to learn more about Open JC, you can:

Don’t wait…get civic with Open JC.  Jump on this train as it leaves the station, and be part of a more civic tomorrow.

Addendum!  Many thanks to Joshua, another member of Open JC, for providing these additional projects in various stages of development within the group:

1. Partnering with the JC Department of Recreation to create an application for listing of events, as well as an internal application for the Department to track who is participating in their programs.

2. An updated Ward Map, with demographic information. Can be found here.http://openjerseycity.org/Ward-Maps/wardmap.html

3. Working with the Police Department to publish where and when incidents have occurred and have been reported.

4. Drafting the Open Data Initiative ordinance to make all data publicly available.

One Comment

  1. Some other projects in various stages of development include:

    1. Partnering with the JC Department of Recreation to create an application for listing of events, as well as an internal application for the Department to track who is participating in their programs.

    2. An updated Ward Map, with demographic information. Can be found here. http://openjerseycity.org/Ward-Maps/wardmap.html

    3. Working with the Police Department to publish where and when incidents have occurred and have been reported.

    4. Drafting the Open Data Initiative ordinance to make all data publicly available.

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