Data flowing through a city

Open data portal aims to be 'Data.gov for state and local agencies'

Accela Inc., which says its mission is connecting citizens with government, launched CivicData, a cloud-based open data portal that combines information from official government sources and public users, providing researchers one place to find multiple data sets.

Typically, governments manage their own stand-alone open data portals, which means someone searching for information would have to go to individual agency sites to collect what they need, said Mark Headd, a technical evangelist at Accela, which launched CivicData late last year.

Instead, the firm aims to offer a one-stop, multijurisdictional portal for public sector data sets.  Currently the site has about 30 governments publishing data, about 200 registered users and about 90 data sets, ranging from New York City Bike Share trip data to Port of San Francisco permit information.

By year's end Accela hopes to double the number of governments using the site, triple the number of users and increase the number of data sets by tenfold.

“Certainly it’s laudable that governments are publishing their open data and making it available for people to use,” Headd said. We thought it would be really exciting to bring together data from agencies from across the country, make it discoverable and allow people to browse it in one place, he said.

Accela thinks of CivicData as the Data.gov of state and local governments, referring to the Obama administration’s open data portal. Whereas all federal agencies publish data to Data.gov, CivicData is currently populated with information heavy on licensing and permits from Accela customers, which tend to be state and local governments, Headd said. It’s open to federal entities and foreign governments too, however.

Like Data.gov, CivicData is built on CKAN, an open-source data portal platform developed by the Open Knowledge Foundation.

“That’s really a unique feature of the platform,” Headd said. “It allows us to invite multiple parties, whether they’re governments or non-governments, to add data to the site, and it allows users to run queries across those different data sets and to mash them up in new and interesting ways.”

CivicData leverages the CKAN DataStore Data API, which allows sophisticated querying of datasets – including joins across separate data sets. This is what makes the commingling of data from different sources so impactful, Headd wrote in the Accela blog.

It allows us to put official government information and other data that could be valuable side-by-side, he said.

Anyone can register at CivicData and add data sets. It’s free to use, although Accela customers get perks such as assistance moving data from Accela products to the portal. Users can also set up groupings branded with the government’s logo and name so that when people visit the site, they can see that the data producer is official.

Users can also access various APIs to publish and update data, but Headd recommends the CKAN DataStore Data API. “If you’re a data user, it’s really powerful,” he said. “It’s really what you want to use to get data out of a CKAN.”

Safeguards are in place to ward off misinformation or the augmentation of data sets by users looking to do harm. All users must register with their licensing numbers and contact information, for example, Headd said. If any bad information gets through, he expects the community will weed it out.

Accela releases new CivicData features every six to eight weeks, mainly involving improvements to automated publishing, Headd said. The next release is slated for mid- to late June. 

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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