Philadelphia: High-Tech Civic Fusion at Work

Philadelphia was one of four communities selected for an in-depth case study in the NLC and Knight Foundation's Bright Spots in Community Engagement report. The full case study is reprinted below.

“My belief is that if we keep helping these good guys [in City Hall] do good work, their colleagues will need to learn the value of partnering with engaged citizens.”
— Alex Hillman, Indy Hall

Alex Hillman, one of two founders of Philadelphia’s internationally regarded co-working space, Indy Hall, explains civic fusion this way: "Imagine a long room with doors on either end. Next to each door is a coat rack. Through one door walk citizens of the city. "ey hang up their coats, take off their hats. At the other end of the room walk in the City people. They walk in and do the same. In the middle of the room is a table, and the table is a problem. Everyone mixes and mingles around the table. Nobody knows, exactly, where anyone else is from. But everybody is in the room for one reason: to solve that problem today. Everyone brings their perspective to the table, public or private. That table is civic fusion."

The term civic fusion, widely used within Philadelphia’s government and entrepreneurial technology sectors, was coined by Jeff Friedman, co-director of Philadelphia’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, to describe the public-private efforts in Philadelphia to address pressing civic needs.

Indy HallPhiladelphia was host to a number of civic efforts in the late 2000s, from the nascent networking group Philly Startup Leaders, to the “unconference” BarCampPhilly, to the independent online press developing around this new community of entrepreneurs, hackers, do-it-yourself “makers” and activists. These efforts existed mostly outside the knowledge or interest of City Hall. Indeed, many were only loosely networked with one another.

The story of the fusion with public efforts over the past several years is not that city government was able to organize a civic infrastructure or manifest a set of tools that did not exist—that energy was largely already in place in other parts of the community. The key to understanding Philadelphia’s developing civic fusion is that the city government participated within that community to learn from and partner with it. It all started in late 2009, when Philadelphia was preparing an application to Google to be a recipient of its experimental fiber optic broadband investment, Indy Hall invited Allen Frank, the City’s Chief Information Officer, as well as Jeff Friedman and several hackers and community activists to assemble a “Gigabit Philly” website. As Alex Hillman related: "We spent an entire day developing that website and at the end of that day Jeff Friedman turned to me and said ‘I didn’t even know work could get done this way.’ And I think that moment was a turning point for me in realizing that we could impact how they get things done. And so since that day I’ve paid very close attention to applying the kinds of model in government that we’ve seen be successful in the community. My belief is that if we keep helping these good guys do good work, their colleagues will need to learn the value of partnering with engaged citizens."

In July of 2009, Friedman began to invite members of the civic community to be a part of a group that dubbed itself “Open Access Philadelphia.” Every week, this group convened around a conference table – both the literal and figurative table in Hillman’s metaphor, with a cast of characters that changed and evolved month-to-month.

A set of loosely connected successes soon followed. In 2010, the city was awarded federal broadband money for three years of work on digital inclusion now under the heading of “Keyspots Philadelphia.” that same year, the city’s application to Google was successful and Philadelphia became one of several cities to host the first cohort of Code for America fellows. Outside of government, Technically Philly had expanded through a combination of foundation and corporate support, and the co-working community originally centered around Indy Hall began to expand and spin off new communities of hackers, gamers, and others.

But the work of Open Access Philadelphia remained relatively stalled. Its members had decided that a portal to collect and publish public data for application development should be their first project, yet without a budget or any formal authority they could not move forward. Robert Cheetham, proprietor of the Philadelphia-based software firm Azavea remembers that several members, frustrated with the slow pace of progress, approached him with a request: “I’m pretty sure what they want to do isn’t that hard,” he remembers them saying, “and they need someone to tell them that.” Cheetham advised them to “begin by celebrating what you already have.”

Soon, members of Open Access Philadelphia became aware of the large trove of geospatial information already published by Philadelphia’s very forward-thinking municipal GIS community. In addition, the Police Department had recently begun publishing its Part 1 crimes online, and the city’s 311 system was nearly ready to release summary call information. These three data sets began the core of the first “Open Data Philly” release. Cheetham devoted Azavea’s considerable expertise and some of his staff resources to developing the initial site pro bono, estimating it at “one or two week’s work.” The group set their target for the site’s launch for April 2011, to announce it at Philly Tech Week. The city’s first major celebration of its InfoTech community would therefore see the first product of this new public-private partnership around data transparency.

In a virtual round robin, partners in the open access initiative took the opportunity to kick in some of their own time and financial support. The William Penn Foundation contributed $30,000 to encourage Cheetham to develop an additional set of social functionality around the open data platform. The Code for America fellows, who visited Philadelphia for the first time in February 2011, two months before Philly Tech Week, created several small applications, built on top of the open data access application interface, as a kind of proof of concept. These applications were catalogued alongside the data and launched together two months later.

The launch of Open Data Philly was important in several senses. It validated the public-private partnership behind Open Access Philadelphia as having the capacity to launch useful products, and provided a focus for their energy and resources. It contributed to a “signaling effect,” along with the mayor’s participation in civic hacking events and sponsorship of the community’s first signature event, Tech Week. It also created pressure for the further release of information to the public and to application developers.

In particular, Open Data Philly users quickly requested data from the Southeast Pennsylvania Transit Authority, or SEPTA. Activists within SEPTA used this as leverage to push for the public release of an open data access application interface that the transit authority had been developing for nearly a decade, and used internally. Yet the creation of this portal and release of several data sets were not, by themselves, enough—only several hundred participants had been attracted to Open Data Philly by mid-year.

The next advance came through the Open Data Race, conducted from August to October 2011. The premise was a contest that would award a nominal ($2,000) amount of money to the best idea for an app using public data, along with a promise to work with the city to make that dataset available and with the development community to build it. Nearly 30 submissions were received. Non-profits used their networks to encourage people to register with Open Data Philly and vote for their favorite submissions. Several thousand people did register and vote.

The winners were announced in October at a public symposium and are described at: http://opendataphilly.org/contest/.  This created a constituency for Open Data Philly, built brand awareness among people outside of the information technology sector, and created an ordered list of approximately 20 of the most demanded public data sets for Open Access Philly to push.


Shortly after the conclusion of the Open Data Race, Cheetham and several Open Access Philadelphia colleagues asked the city’s Chief Innovation Officer, Adel W. Ebeid, about releasing some of the data sets identified by the Open Data Race as a priority for the community. Ebeid agreed to this in principle and, by January, had formally committed to preparing an executive order for the mayor, affirming that the city would make a practice of releasing public data through a city-run portal. Members of Open Access Philadelphia drafted language and in April 2012, at the second Philly Tech Week, the mayor signed the executive order, which created the position of Chief Data Officer (Mark Headd, formerly of Code for America, was then hired to fill this position) and established a Data Governance Advisory Board.

More recently, hosting for the Open Data Philly portal has been taken over by the Philadelphia Public Interest Information Network, or PPIIN, a $2.4 million creation of the William Penn Foundation housed at Temple University. A major decision now looms: when city government creates its open data portal, as the executive order requires, it is unclear if they will adopt the PPIIN-hosted Open Data Philly infrastructure as their platform or try and create their own, situated firmly within municipal government. Open Access Philly, led by Paul Wright, sent the Nutter administration a letter asking it to commit to building on what exists rather than “building a new portal from scratch.”

Lessons and Observations

Open Access Philadelphia’s entrepreneurial orientation and unusual role, with members both inside and outside of government, facilitated action in city hall to release data. Participants in this community engagement effort contributed different types of assistance—pro bono development, foundation funding, public resources—and generated cross-sector patience, trust and respect. This civic partnership has been as much about government adopting the ethic of the InfoTech community as the government finding productive ways to harness the energy in the civic sector.

These initiatives would not be successful without civic fusion. There is an ongoing question about the future location of the open data portal, for example. While the mayor’s executive order commits the city to supporting a city-run open data warehouse, there is unanimous agreement among both government and private Open Access Philadelphia members that Open Data Philly is stronger outside of government: it hosts many private datasets that for legal and logistical reasons the government would not, and it remains “community-owned.”

One element of that fusion is a remarkable unwillingness of any of the major actors to take credit for the development of Open Access Philadelphia or any of its products, including Open Data Philly. There is a clear respect for each other’s roles and perhaps a concern for undermining that spirit of collaboration by getting out in front.

This civic fusion was sustained by a variety of institutions and strategies, including foundation funding. The Knight Foundation supported broadband applications. Several other foundations initially supported Technically Philly, a dedicated press described by Alex Hillman as “our Rolling Stone”. A broad community of civic and commercial entities hosted signature events also hosted signature events such as Ignite Philly and Philly Tech Week, and eventually helped attract public sponsorship of Open Access Philadelphia alongside the endorsement of the mayor.

So far, this Philadelphia story has been a success in terms of expanding access to public data. It has not, however, been connected with broader efforts to engage people in public decision-making and problem-solving. Most of the people interviewed were especially conscious of the need to reach out to underserved communities, and two pilots are underway:

  • Digital On Ramps, led by Lisa Nutter and the Urban Affairs Coalition, is leveraging broadband investments and mobile technology to create a platform for education and digital literacy.
  • Freedom Rings/Keyspots, the $20 million federal investment in broadband access, has developed a strong network of non-profits to expand Internet access and digital literacy in underserved communities.

But these efforts, if successful, may simply expand access while failing to connect people with meaningful opportunities for engagement. Philadelphia is home to many other kinds of engagement efforts, from neighborhood-level organizing to the mayor’s high-profile effort to involve residents in priority-setting for the city budget. Perhaps the greatest challenge (and opportunity) in Philadelphia is to connect the dots between its open data successes and other aspects of the broader civic picture.