First off, we have a blog now. Here we’ll talk about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how we made it happen. When it comes to our work, I’m a shabby judge of what’s interesting. So if you want us to talk about something we haven’t talked about yet, let us know.
We have a humdinger of an excuse for our inaugural post. Last weekend, we invited more than 50 coders, designers and data jockeys to spend the weekend at the World-Herald making amazing products out of government data.
There weren’t a ton of rules, save that everything had to be based off open, publicly available government information, and all product had to be open-sourced. One team opted to get their own copy of the state’s campaign finance data, but by and large teams worked off about two dozen datasets graciously hosted by our sponsor Socrata. We included a little bit of everything — crime, pedestrian accidents, building code violations, restaurant inspections and basically anything else we’ve used that wasn’t too stale.
I was most excited to see how non-newsies wrestled with the basic question we deal with every day: How do you make government information interesting, useful? Surprisingly, there wasn’t much wrestling at all. Teams seemed to take one of two basic approaches. Some turned data into games. Others seemed to focus on utility, adding the hooks needed to make the data something users could refer to over the course of the day.
For about a year now, I’ve been proselytizing for news apps to make the leap from one-day news-driven projects to durable data products. Some people in the news industry are on board, others think me nuts. But it was intriguing to see how, in a 48-hour coding sprint, durable data products were the approach du jour. What that means, I’m not sure, but it was enormously heartening to be surrounded by folks on the same wavelength.
The reaction was so positive, we’re exploring smaller, more focused sprints with a single dataset — sort of crowdsourcing projects of news importance. For example, we recently had a dustup over the closing of some polling location. There were all sorts of data associated with that story, and we did a quick map with Fusion tables. That was ok. But what would happen if we took all of the data associated with that story and worked on it with a Hack Omaha-style group? I’d like to find out.
Here’s the full list of projects that came out of the weekend, in no particular order. For the legal eagles, the World-Herald didn’t counsel with any teams about how they interpreted data and we don’t endorse/back/promote any of these projects as they are.
Omaha Food Fight
Our big winner was a game that randomly pits two food establishments against each other and asks users to decide which is cleaner. Fun on its face, but the secret sauce here was the secondary dataset that uses user ratings to sniff out intriguing tidbits.
Is it Clean?
Another take on restaurant inspection data made the dry data dump significantly more user-friendly, adding a geographic component as well as a information about the various ratings. The team tackled both a web app and a native iPhone app.
Voting registration app
The voting registration app was an ambitious attempt to marry voter information with parcel data to show trends by space. The team wound up running into the all-too-common dirty data/short development cycle roadblock, but still churned out an impressive app using registration data alone.
A runner-up, SafeOmaha used a year worth of crime data and accident locations to generate an on-the-fly heat map of the concentration of events. In addition to letting users set their own parameters, the app pulls in FourSquare checkins to show just how safe a person’s daily routine is.
Omaha Bounty Hunter
Making crime data fun is easier said than done. The Bounty Hunter team, though, pulled it off. Looking through a table of the reported value of stolen items, the team was intrigued by how off some of the estimates were. $1,000 phones. Computers worth far more than could be purchased new. So they turned it into a game where users could compete to string together a series of correct guesses. Hard to do. Incredibly addictive.
Valuation Comparison Interface
This was personally a fun one to watch unfold. The team basically approached the same problem we did for Curbwise, trying to make it easy for people to understand tax valuations and decide whether to protest. It was cool to see how they approached it, though, as it was a completely different method. Rather than use comparables and averages, they made a bell curve out of similar properties, with the property in question as the mean.
Play Safe Omaha
The product of a one-person team, Play Safe Omaha was rolled by a non-developer. Which is awesome. His goal was to show families where it was safe to play, and he pulled it off. A few neat twists set this one apart, most notably Rob’s use of crowdsourcing to get people’s impressions of the best parks.
Another project that might have been a bit optimistic for a 48-hour turnaround, PoliGraph continues to have its sight set on making Nebraska’s campaign finance data easy to use. (Note for you in far-off lands of milk and honey: that ain’t exactly how it’s done in NE.) The developers say they will maintain the project — this might be worth keeping an eye on.
Slumlord Next Door
Again, each team went their own way with how they interpreted data. I’m not comfortable calling people slumlords based off the available data (housing code violations), but the project is super cool and was recognized as a runner-up. Per the site’s about page: “The site is a tool to search your neighborhood for major landowners and building code violations. Using data made available by the Douglas County Government, information about land parcel ownership and existing building code violations can be visualized to understand the location and density of violators.”
I owe a bunch of people a bunch of thanks for pulling this thing off. The aforementioned Socrata was amazing, a simple tool to make data (even big data) easy to share. Silicon Prairie News came on early as a media sponsor and general keep-Matt-from-doing-something-dumb stopper. I think they did a good job with both. Finally, I owe a huge thanks to executive editor Mike Reilly, who let me run with this cockamamie idea.