Hacking Tyler, Texas: Everything Begins With Data

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Either because of Texas' Public Information Law or Texas culture, the state has more data made public by default than others

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A week's gone by since I sparked an unexpected ruckus with my inaugural Hack Tyler post. I had no idea it was going to find resonance with so many people. I've received comments from coders, journalists and government wonks of all stripes. Even more exciting, I've heard from a diverse cast of current and former citizens of Tyler -- some wild about my ideas and some ... less so. I even heard from a local high school student who wants to become a coder, but isn't sure where to start.

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I've tried to respond to everyone as best I can, however, I've made a conscious decision not to try to correct every misconception about what I've written. If folks are concerned I might to be about to embark on some carpetbagging idealistic crusade against the local government, I'm happy to try to sort those concerns out individually. I'm not about to turn this blog into policy. I want to spend my time actually doing things.

To that end, I've spent the last week focusing on the data made available by the City of Tyler and its parent, Smith County. I've created a list of all data sources I've been able to identify. Its been heartening to see how much data actually is available (albeit often in less than ideal formats). A few items are of particular note:

  • Tyler and Smith County have a joint GIS repository that is quite extensive and (ostensibly) updated at regular intervals.
  • Tyler has a real-time list of where its police officers are responding to calls. I've never seen this in any other city. (It seems to have been a student capstone project.)
  • Smith County has put most, if not all, of its financial documentation online.

Since starting this project I've learned a little bit about Texas' Public Information Law, which seems robust. Either because of the law or because of Texas culture there is a greater amount of "public by default" data than I'm used to. According to Texas Tribune reporter Matt Stiles in an On The Media interview this transparency is an effect of the state's conservative culture. I'm hoping I can take proper advantage of this openness to get even more data, such as some of the datasets off Max Ogden's authoritative, crowd-sourced civic datasets list.

In addition to creating my list of links I've also started building out infrastructure. So far I've:

There isn't much data in the Boundary Service yet, but once populated it will allow me (and any other developers) to build apps using regional GIS data, without having to muck about with shapefiles and databases. I had a great deal of fun building the Boundary Service for Chicago so I'm excited to be able to repurpose it for Tyler. I believe strongly in building APIs like this one so that others can build on the things I make and I hope to create more of them as I go along.

Preparing the data is a crucial step toward building any applications, but I hope to get started building more generally useful products soon. I've got a number of ideas queued up and I'm saving the first of them for my next blog post, by which time I hope to have gotten a response from the City of Tyler Transit Department on my first data request.

Image: Tyler City Hall/Wikimedia Commons.

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Christopher Groskopf is the lead developer on the PANDA Project. He lives in Tyler, Texas. Follow his attempts to improve his community with technology at Hack Tyler.

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