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What Philadelphia's New "Director of Civic Technology" Is There to Do

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, January 15 2013

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter's administration continues its own experiment in building a tech-savvy City Hall by appointing a "director of civic technology."

Tim Wisniewski, 24, will move to the role from a position as assistant city managing director. He has been part of the city government since January 2012, and served prior to that as the executive director of a nonprofit working to improve commerce in the business corridor of a low-income neighborhood. While working for the city, he was the project manager on development of a mobile application for the city's 311 non-emergency services system.

A handful of cities across the country are trying out the idea that Internet technology can dramatically change the way cities work. Philadelphia is one of them. In 2011, Philadelphia joined the first year of Code for America, a program to put technologists in city halls. The same year, Nutter issued an executive order that consolidated management of information technology across all city departments into one position, the chief information officer. In 2012, the city hired Mark Headd away from Code for America to become the city's chief data officer, and in December announced that the city would release detailed crime data, updated daily.

One of the big ideas here is that if the city releases data it has about Philadelphia and its people, companies and civic-minded hackers will come along to turn that data into useful tools. It's the idea that Code for America and other organizations have been pounding for years. But looking at this idea from inside government rather than outside of it, it looks different.

"The announcement we did last month with the crime data was, I thought, really a good win -- not only because it's good data, it's the only time it's been released this way," Headd told me. "But we used it as a test case basically. What issues, concerns, problems opportunities can we prove out by walking through this process. Figuring out what it really looks like."

What Headd and the rest of Philadelphia city government found was that turning on the spigot for a flow of clean, ready-to-use government data is a time-intensive process. So intensive, in fact, that Headd is likely to be preoccupied with working inside government to get key datasets ready to publish and won't have time to work with the people outside of government whom the Nutter administration hopes will put the data to use.

That's where Wisniewski comes in. As director of civic technology, Wisniewski will be doing outside of government what Headd is doing inside of it — making the act of using government data in Philadelphia as smooth a process as possible.

Before joining city government in January 2012, Wisniewski was a frequent visitor to hackathons, day- or weekend-long get-togethers where programmers often competed for prizes as they worked to put together applications or proof-of-concept demos in a limited amount of time. From inside government, Wisniewski will now work to help that community get more out of city data.

"Often we see some apps that don't necessarily make it past the demo, whether that's because there's not enough focus or there's not enough resources provided by the city, or for whatever reason," Wisniewski said Monday. "The creation of this position is hoping to address that to an extent."

An opportunity to do that is coming soon. Philadelphia officials are not ready to talk about a precise launch date, but Headd says the city is preparing to launch API access for the city's 311 service request system. The API will conform to the Open311 standard meaning there are a number of applications out there already that could almost immediately be repurposed to work in Philadelphia. Wisniewski will be one of the people helping to promote the API to developers.

Organizationally, all of this happens under the auspices of Philadelphia's managing director, who is responsible for the city's 311 system, vehicle fleet, human resources and records, among other things. Wisniewski joins a long list of technology-related city roles: Chief Information Officer Adel Ebeid, Headd, Clinton Johnson, the city's deputy CIO and chief enterprise architect, and the co-heads of the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics, Story Bellows and Jeff Friedman. Technically Philly spotted Wisniewski's appointment last week. The civic hacker turned city official is still settling in to his new role — he hasn't moved into his new office yet, he said.

This post has been corrected. Philadelphia's director of civic technology is Tim Wisniewski, not Adam. We regret the error.

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