Toying with open data is (college) kids’ play, and civic innovation

As we consider how to energize our community around civic open data, we look to our public sector and its leaders. How is it that a person working in the public sector might come to be an open data champion? One very common way to make someone an advocate is by giving them a positive experience. In our case, we’re talking about having a positive interaction with the use of data as a way to convince and convert someone about its value.

Now, pair this observation with the refrain we hear about there not being enough properly skilled folks to fill IT jobs, then add a creative thinking deputy chief information officer and you get…

The MobilePA Challenge…an initiative of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Office for Information Technology (OIT) that partners state government agencies with university faculty and student teams to develop mobile applications to facilitate the delivery of information and value-added services to Pennsylvania citizens and agencies.

Pinch me because if I’m not mistaken, Northeast Ohio, and Ohio in general, is teeming with university faculty and students who could do or would want to do this. There’s still the little matter of pitching and persuading our state CIO and the Regents, but I’ve heard or met some of these folks and they get it. We just need them to see if worth it.

Some specifics: A little over two years ago, the then-Pennsylvania Chief Information Officer, Tony Encinias, a well-regarded veteran of this work, came up with the plan you can read here. Although it started out as a more traditional short-term app competition, the experiment morphed into a semester-long college course:

The Mobile PA Challenge, unlike weekend hackathon events happening locally, spans a semester and gives students recognition and professional development for creating a needed mobile app or mobile website. At the same time, the commonwealth gets to introduce itself to students before they commit to jobs and also receives their work at the semester’s end.

“The true value of this is that every time we’ve done this challenge, every student is amazed at what we do in state government,” Lara said, adding that this is a switch in thinking from students who did not equate mobile technology with what’s being done in the Office of Information Technology (OIT).

The students don’t work with live datafeeds (the Office of Information Technology took care of that at the end of the project), but they do speak directly with the state agencies and businesses involved.

The results have included a mobile website to promote drug addiction recovery (Get Help Now), a recycling app showing to recycle, and a library app providing users with mobile access. The addiction tools take advantage of open data in order to help “…those dealing with addiction to navigate health-care coverage, find treatment providers by area and connect with sources of publicly funded treatment, among other things.”

I read examples like this and think, how can we not be piloting such programs in Ohio? And then I think, hopefully, soon, we will be.

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