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Building the Future of Civic Innovation, One Standard At A Time

This is a guest post from Accela, a platinum sponsor of the 2015 Code for America Summit.

At Accela, we’re lucky to be able to work with innovative public officials from across the country to find ways to make government work more efficiently.

Increasingly, at the heart of our work with governments is data – finding ways for governments to make better use of their own data to make more informed decisions and to share their data with external partners like CfA Brigades.

Over the past year, our work in this area has surfaced a new imperative – finding ways for governments to collaborate more effectively. As with much of the innovative work being done in the civic tech space, data lies at the heart of our efforts.

We believe that developing and implementing new shared standards for open data will help usher in the next phase of open government and civic innovation, and we’ve been working with cities and counties from across the country and other civic tech companies to help make this happen.

But if we’re going to be successful in these efforts, we’ll need your help.

Why Data Standards Are Important

Data standardization across governments is a critical milestone that must be realized to advance the open data movement, to fully realize all of the potential benefits of openly publishing government data. More and more people in the civic technology community are starting to realize the importance of this milestone and more and more energy will be devoted to creating new standards for open data in the months and years ahead.

The best example of what is possible when governments publish open data that conforms to a specific standard is the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS). Developed by Google in partnership with the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon (TriMet), GTFS is a data specification that is used by dozens of transit and transportation agencies across the country, and it has all of the qualities that open data advocates hope to replicate in other data standards for cities.

Transit authorities that publish GTFS data see an immediate tangible benefit because their transit information is available in Google Transit. Making this information more widely available benefits both transit agencies and transit riders, but the immediacy with which transit agencies can see this benefit makes GTFS particularly valuable.

The GTFS standard is relatively easy to use and presents a low barrier to entry for transit agencies being asked to produce open data. In addition, it’s an inherently usable format for consumers of GTFS data. In fact, the ease of use of GTFS has spawned a cottage industry of transit applications in cities across the country and continues to be used as the bedrock set of information for transit app developers.

And perhaps most importantly, GTFS has given open data advocates a benchmark to use to advance other data standardization efforts. In many ways, GTFS made standards like Open311 and LIVES possible.

How You Can Get Involved

Accela is leading a new initiative to develop a data standard for building permits – data that is of great importance to cities and counties across the country.

Building permit data can provide huge insights to those working to improve communities. Permit data can be used as a proxy for economic activity and allow for insights into how an upswing (or downturn) in the economy plays out at the community level. It might show the changing character of neighborhoods, and how gentrification is playing out in cities.

The Building and Land Development Specification (BLDS, pronounced “builds”) is being developed collaboratively by a consortium of civic tech companies using a process that is transparent and open to the public. Using tools like Github,waffle.io and Slack, we’re hoping to not only build a new data standard, but also to help develop a blueprint for building data standards that can be used over and over again in the future.

Anyone interested in helping develop the BLDS standard, that would like to start using building permit data or who wants to view the work of consortium to date can go to the GitHub repo being used for this work. Anyone can open an issue, ask a question or make a suggestion. Governments that want to start publishing building permit data in the BLDS format can ask questions or obtain assistance by emailing questions@permitdata.org.

At Accela, we believe that shared standards for open data will help usher in a new era of innovation in civic technology.

We hope you’ll join us in helping to build this future.