What do you think of when you hear about Pittsburgh? A sky filled with smoke and soot?
A huge steel plant?
Or do you think of the Steelers playing at Heinz Field?
What about an economic juggernaut that had a part in turning the United States into a superpower?
Do you know that much of the steel that now forms the frames of many of the world’s older buildings was produced near the city? The economy that the steel industry created in the late 1800s and early 1900s produced so much wealth for local industrialist Andrew Carnegie that he was one of the world’s richest men. His legacy in Pittsburgh is so powerful that locals that remember steel's glory days ask one eternal question: was slavery to Mr. Carnegie worth what he gave back to the world in culture and academics? Few people realize the impact Pittsburgh’s innovation and muscle had in shaping the world. It created a civic pride in the area that has seen it through a financial disaster - the death of the local steel industry - that rivals only what recently happened in Detroit.
It has been a long and, at times, painful struggle but the city is once again finding its economic will and strength.
Over the last fifteen years, the area has turned itself into a vibrant economic mosaic of health care, entrepreneurship and risk taking. According to a study by startup blog Tech Crunch, Pittsburgh boasts one of the top ten venture capital backed small business incubators in the country - Alphalab. The infrastructure around the startup scene routinely courts college students - with varying success - to keep new ideas in the city. That type of multi-level cooperation seems to have finally found its way to city hall.
As of March 11th, 2014, city council preliminarily passed an open data ordinance to some fanfare, making Pittsburgh the newest member of a small group of American cities that are trying to make government more transparent. The philosophy is a cornerstone of the new mayor's administration and was a main part of the platform of many new - and young - city council members. It was introduced by Councilperson Natalia Rudiak - standing on the far right in the photo below - of the city's fourth district and even put up on Google docs for open comment.
To further legitimize the process, the mayor has hired an analytics and strategy manager - Ms. Laura Meixell, pictured second from the right in the above photo - to lead the consolidation of city public data. She has gone so far as to reach out to the local programming community by every channel possible: she has hosted question and answer sessions on Reddit and is a driving force behind a civic coding movement. Locals have recently come together under many banners to experiment with city data and have produced small apps to help with everything from pothole reporting to reminders for recycling week.
One of the most important possible uses for an open data philosophy will be to help citizens to police "land bank" legislation. A land bank takes money from penalties and fees associated with tax delinquent properties and puts it into a single fund that the city can use to rehabilitate other properties. It was recently put up for discussion by its sponsoring city Councilwoman - Ms. Deb Gross - to much emotional reaction. Pittsburgh - as many major cities - has low income areas. Many fear that private citizens could manipulate the system and grab potentially valuable land in lower income neighborhoods. The hope is that citizens with programming skills could monitor the process to make sure that doesn't happen. If it does, they can alert the public and hold any involved politician accountable.
The open data movement is a microcosm of where Pittsburgh sees itself in the twenty-first century. Innovation and those with the strength of will to take risks can quickly achieve notoriety and success here if given the proper tools. Those with the drive to police local government have more channels available now than ever before. Any member of the public can affect change in his or her life at a scale not seen here in a very long time. It truly is an exciting time to be in Pittsburgh and to see how things continue to change over the next ten to twenty years.
Pittsburgh has had a reputation for being behind the times nationally, but that is changing. Thanks to a young, serious and modern administration the city could be on the cutting edge of changing local government.
Could something be starting in the city that will spread nationally? Is civic hacking just a trend?
Credits: Images and data linked to sources.