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UIX Q&A: Alok Sharma, Sharma Analytics and Detroit Startup Drinks

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The National Day of Civic Hacking is May 31, so we thought we'd check in with UIX innovator Alok Sharma of Sharma Analytics and Detroit Startup Drinks to see what's on his mind and up his sleeve.
 
UIX: Let's start at the top. I think a lot of folks might not really get what "civic hacking" means. Some may have a negative perception -- like internet hackers stealing your credit card information, or political "hacktivists" like Edward Snowdon, Julian Assange and Aaron Swartz. So help us -- in the context of a city like Detroit, what is "civic hacking" and why does it matter?

Alok Sharma: Over the years the word "hacking" has been co-opted by the technology community; no longer meaning nefarious uses (or abuses) of technology. Civic hacking is using data that's been opened to do things that the public finds useful or necessary or opening up data that belongs to the public to make it more easily accessible.  It breeds the public's faith in government when we remove the barriers to information. Also, it allows the public to do the things with the data that they find useful. 
 
This is the second year you're hosting an event in Detroit. What have you got planned?

We've broken the day down into two parts - where have we been and where can we go.  
 
For part 1, we're focusing on where we've been. We have a number of whip-smart folks doing really interesting things with public data here in Detroit. We want to highlight their work as they don't often get the recognition they deserve.  The work will be presented as high energy 20x20 presentations (Pecha Kucha style - 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide). Presenters include the Blight Task Force who've created a blextingmobile app as well as Excellent Schools Detroit presenting on K-12 school data that's been made available to the public via web and application programming interface (API).
 
Part 2 is about where can we go. What sort of data will allow us to serve our city better and how can we convince the powers that be to open this data up to us? We need to get our asks organized and make a sold case for each data set we want and what we might do with those data sets. I think most units of government have a real desire to open up more of their data, but they have limited bandwidth and resources, so we need to help them prioritize what we'd like.
 
If I'm not a tech or data nerd, should I come? Will I get it? What are some ways more Detroiters can plug into this movement?

Yes! And yes! We want and NEED all sorts of Detroiters to come out! The length of the presentations are short so that we concentrate on what people are doing rather than how they are doing it. We think that will make the presentations understandable for even non-technical people. In part 2, we need to hear from residents, urban planners, and non-profits to figure out what data we need to set free.
 
Open data is hot right now. Detroit even has a new Chief Information Officer. How is Detroit doing compared to other cities? How could it do better?

Detroit city government is definitely behind the times. But the global open data movement is still in it's infancy, so it's not too hard to catch up!  Lucky for us, Detroit's new CIO, Beth Niblock, comes to Detroit from Louisville with some serious bona fides both in terms of internal IT operations AND open data.  She's already made the rounds and met with Code for Detroit, Data Driven Detroit and others.  I think there is a real willingness for our government to open up data, but they need some direction as to where to start.  That's where citizens can play a role. Let's create an open data wishlist at National Day of Civic Hacking Detroit. 
 
What's your dream Detroit dataset? Is there one source of public information you'd love to see unlocked to help spur new innovation?

I don't have a dream data set per se. My dream it to see Detroit implement a consistent process for opening data. A process that would allow the public to request data sets, the city to prioritize data for opening, and a data warehouse that would be available to the general public. 

Check out the Hack for Change event on Saturday, May 31 from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the [email protected] Building in downtown Detroit. For more information, click here.

 
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