Jackson, Michigan's Open Data Portal Is on Groundbreaking Track

Jackson, Michigan Jackson, Michigan Michigan Municipal League via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

The city of Jackson, Michigan, has bold ambitions to make its website the first of its kind in the Great Lakes State to operate as an open data portal.

Unfortunately, city officials announced they’ve hit a slight delay in the process, pushing the expected rollout back at least a month.

"We're kind of struggling to keep our heads above water after the holidays," Jackson City Manager Patrick Burtch said in an interview with MLive.com. "We were going to meet with city employees this week to train them on policies and procedures but pushed it back to next."

Even with the delay, Jackson, a city with about 33,000 residents located 35 miles west of Ann Arbor, is embarking on a historic path.

Jackson is on track to be the first city in the United States with a population of less than 100,000 residents to offer such a massive open data portal to the public, according to the Sunlight Foundation, which is collaborating with the University of Michigan on the project.

If completed, Jackson’s open data access would likely resemble a model currently being implemented in South Bend, Indiana, a city of just more than 100,000 residents that also partnered with the Sunlight Foundation on its project.

“This platform holds information about city finances, services and code enforcement, enabling city residents better access information,” reads a description on the South Bend site. “In addition, the Open Data platform enables the city to better understand captured data and develop data-based solutions to challenging problems. With features that allow government officials and citizens alike to view more information than ever before.”

Burtch technically has until May 13, when the city will formally vote on whether to approve funding for the project, which has been under development in conjunction with city officials and students at the University of Michigan School of Information. For its part, the school is currently engaged in multiple government-related research projects.

If approved, the open data access site would allow anyone who visits to make use of government information provided on the city’s website.

Advocates of open data policies for cities and states say it can drastically help in the development of apps or even public policy ideas that can improve and streamline government services. Examples include using traffic data to come with a specialized GPS navigation app for city drivers. Or, looking at government contracts to find ways to improve city services while simultaneously saving money.

The Jackson initiative was first pushed by Councilman Derek Dobies, who has said that opening up the city’s data would provide a measurable benefit to businesses and city residents.

As of now, the same type of information that Dobies and other advocates want to make freely available can only be obtained from a public records request via the Freedom of Information Act, which can be a laborious and time consuming ventures that might detour otherwise valuable requests and also consumes the time and resources of government officials who have to review and approve each request.

(Photo of downtown Jackson, Michigan by the Michigan Municipal League via Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0)

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