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Atlanta startups push city to adopt an open data policy

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The City of Atlanta is about to have to make some important decisions — voting on a new mayor and city council. The new mayor and other civic leaders will play a large role in nurturing and supporting Atlanta’s startup scene. Luckily, with a greater focus on local politics, entrepreneurs and tech leaders are finding their voice to start contributing to the city’s policies.

Rohit Malhotra, founder and executive director of the Center for Civic Innovation, says one policy decision the City of Atlanta could use to tap into tech talent, support and retain companies, and reduce inefficiencies is an open data policy. This would allow startups and other companies to see the city as a customer — and support pilot programs to use technology to improve the city.

“We understand that as entrepreneurs, things shift and they change and you just have to adapt to that. But larger institutions aren’t used to that because they’re not using data to actually inform their decision-making,” says Malhotra.

Pilots using local government data are not unheard of in Atlanta. One such project is MetroTech, a startup that analyzes and improves real-time traffic conditions by using existing video infrastructure to deliver live output to authorities. Another major smart city pilot came from clean tech startup Rubicon Global. The company has employed its app-based tracking and communications platform inside all of the city’s waste-hauling trucks to collect data on waste and truck routes.

Invest Atlanta provides resources to help startups access city data and test their products. During city-supported hackathons, most recently during the ATL Thinks! Airport hackathon, developers are given access to city data to build solutions to the city’s persistent problems. The solutions that came out of this hackathon will be employed to solve pain points at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. The Atlanta Police Department also unveiled an open crime database in 2015 to give citizens access to crime data, from historical data all the way up to the last 24 hours.

Easy access to this already public city data, without time-consuming legal hurdles, could help Atlanta solve many of its infrastructure problems. Such a policy would also help residents trust their local government and move inclusive policy forward, says Malhotra.

Currently, 39 states and 46 localities provide data sets to data.gov, the federal government’s online open data repository. However, Atlanta doesn’t currently have an open data policy. This policy would classify access to information as a right, promoting transparency and accountability by making government data available to all residents.

“We are one of the only major cities in the United States that doesn’t have an open data policy, a policy that says that information is a right, not a privilege,” says Malhotra. “If you file a Freedom of Information Act request … you’re going to get a response from an attorney, it’s going to take an extended period of time, and at the end you may even be hit with a bill.”

Malhotra, currently leading CCI’s project VoteATL.org to educate local voters, took some time to share more about why startups should take a place at the city government table and how open data policy can both bolster economic development and inclusion within the tech community.

Hypepotamus: How can startups and entrepreneurs help shape policy within Atlanta?

You’re seeing startups figure out what their value proposition to a city really is. The second that startups find out how powerful their voice really is, things will start to shift.

You don’t see, in Atlanta, small businesses binding together to fight for something. But if you look at the history of the city, that’s exactly what the story tells. South Downtown is a place where small businesses got together and fought for one another. Small businesses fighting for something and fighting for a city is actually at the core of this city’s history. Once we figure that out again, small businesses and startups will see how much power they actually have. We can’t just be talking points in political speeches; we need to be the informants of what policy should look like.

One of the greatest things that the startup tech sector can get behind is pushing for open data legislation for the City of Atlanta, and to say we’ll design it for you. Other cities have done this.

Hypepotamus: If an open data policy was implemented, how could it help develop solutions for the city?

It starts with advocacy — we need open data legislation that makes it so that you have real-time, accurate, and usable data that you can use in order to develop solutions. I believe that open data is the nucleus for innovation because without good data, you can’t actually build a new product, right? In the same way, the reason we have outdated programs and policies [in Atlanta] is because we don’t have the data on whether something is working or not.

For example, you can ask the city of Atlanta how many assets they own — most mayors around the United States cannot answer that question. They have assets that they are not familiar with because there’s not a centralized place where that information lives.

Data is not readily available and accessible in real time in this city, and a lot of that is because the infrastructure isn’t there to do it. It’s not that they’re not capable. It’s a process, it takes time, it doesn’t happen overnight. People are not stupid, they don’t expect things immediately because they don’t understand process, but the local tech scene could help centralize that information and put in place more effective, cloud-based processes.

Hypepotamus: What would this government data look like?

If the tech sector got together and said “Open data is a priority for us,” we believe that not only will it breed innovation, but it’ll start new businesses. There are businesses that are solely based on open data — The Weather Channel, 401K firm Brightscope, Zillow, and Redfin. It’s all government information, where they filed Freedom of Information requests to get information.

If that became readily available and accessible to the general public, where you had something called Openatl.org and you could not only get the data but also get the context around that information, we could actually build a solution as a partner for government with the tech sector to say, “This is how we can make it usable over time.”

Hypepotamus: How can this open data policy help talent retention within the city?

First, you put the open data policy in place. Second, you help build the infrastructure to make that information accessible and to also provide context for that information. Finally, put a platform in place so that innovative ideas using government data could be tested in partnership with the local government, not as competition or in spite of government.

Government has the opportunity to be the greatest partner to small businesses and startups. If you are successful and your startup grows because of government data and support, you’re going to fight for them when they stand for something else. Right now, there are no incentives to grow your business here and stay here.

This story originally appeared on Hypepotamus.com. Copyright 2017

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