Keeping Milwaukee Out of The Stone Age: Why Milwaukee Needs Standardized, Readable, Shareable Data to Ensure Economic Growth
Until Milwaukee’s public and private sector embrace open data, Milwaukee will continue to be overlooked as a viable home base for technology companies and innovation. As much of the world shifts its focus to information-driven industries and solutions (key drivers for economic growth), and as cities compete for the best talent and the next high-growth business, it’s obvious Milwaukee is behind the competition in terms of technology and information infrastructure. If this trend continues, Milwaukee will fail to attract or retain information industry talent, stifling great opportunity for economic growth and reducing the city’s overall relevance to the rest of the country and to the world.
Open data is unprotected, public sector and private business data that is truly anonymized, standardized, shareable, machine readable, and accessible. 
Milwaukeeans: we have a chance to see our city flourish. The time for open data is NOW.
Milwaukee is a city with many assets: a beautiful lakefront, an attractive downtown and a diverse selection of great restaurants, local urban agriculture programs, and a general culture of friendliness. But Milwaukee is struggling. Milwaukee is struggling to attract and retain technology and entrepreneurial talent, lagging behind other regional cities like Minneapolis and Chicago – and it’s not because of our smaller size. Even Madison is attracting more tech startups than ever. 
Why? Because these cities foster a culture that attracts information industries, and a big way to get behind that idea is to embrace open data. In government, thirty-four (34) states, fifteen (15) major U.S. cities, one hundred seventy-two (172) agencies, and thirty (30) international governments are forging ahead and adopting open data standards, and sharing that information with their constituents.  Unfortunately, neither Milwaukee nor Wisconsin populates those lists. Open data is the reason software developers flock toward certain types of cities, such as New York, Houston, San Francisco, and Portland. It’s because each has a thriving community of people, businesses, governments, and non-profits working together to share information so developers can build tools, researchers can identify trends, and community leaders can solve problems. Without open data, Milwaukee developers, scientists, and entrepreneurs cannot build helpful software, track significant challenges, or start a business. Simply put: without open data, Milwaukee will continue to struggle.
Open data will improve the quality of life for many Milwaukeeans. Open data makes life easier. Citizens will be able know what’s happening in local government and in their communities. City leadership will be able to make smarter decisions to better impact their community and improve the lives of their constituents. Entrepreneurs will be incentivized to start up new data-centric businesses right here in Milwaukee, creating jobs. Non-profit leaders will be able to create greater community connections and generate more awareness for their product or service.
Milwaukee’s government, higher education institutions, non-profit organizations, and businesses hold a staggering amount of raw data on a huge variety of topics that affect our city, county, and region. However, while Milwaukee has a talented pool of developers and creatives, the problem lies in their ability to access and utilize that information.
Most organizations and businesses find that it’s simply too difficult and too costly to retrieve the data. The raw data exists, the resources exist, the tools exist, but without the city-wide adoption of a standard set of open data policies to avoid those future difficulties and costs of accessing that data, the data will be abandoned, along with its potential to improve local communities. Instead, when organizations are identifying grant requirements, or when businesses and governments are selecting IT solutions, or when educational institutions are conducting and compiling data for research studies, there is no requirement or consideration for the future potential of outputting their data. So systems are purchased without open data standard capabilities built in and/or data compiled and stored is irretrievable or in a non-standard format, setting Milwaukee back before we even have the chance to move forward.
Whether in government, business, or in a non-profit organization, consumers should choose new information management systems and websites that operate using open data standards, ensuring future data can be read and shared. At minimum, new systems should have an application programmable interface (API) and offer web services in conjunction with the software. This way the organization can choose to make accessible and publish certain information for public consumption. Not to mention it is far more cost-effective to connect systems that have an API than those that don’t.
The more information made available to the public through open data friendly and carefully chosen information management systems, the more likely businesses and organizations will hire on technology talent to extricate that data and make it useful to the community. Using that data, entrepreneurs and tech startups will also be free to design useful tools and applications for community use. These open systems allow users and organizations to publish a public dashboard on a website, for example, with community, user friendly, accessible information.
The Milwaukee Data Initiative (MDI)  was established to encourage the adoption of open data standards in Milwaukee and to help connect people and organizations to create an accessible, tech friendly city culture here. To quote MDI: “Foundations struggle to measure the impact of their investments. Service organizations struggle to keep up with the various reporting and data management demands from funders. Government leaders strive to solve complex socioeconomic problems amidst a cacaphony of ideology and dissenting voices. Software developers are looking for new ways to build socially responsible and also profitable solutions. What we want to do is connect them all together and agree to standards that make collaboration between these groups easier.” 
Data visibility, standardization, and accessibility have numerous benefits for Milwaukee residents, businesses, organizations, and government offices. On a general level, all of Milwaukee will benefit from greater awareness of city programs, products/services and conditions, and from greater support and interaction between all facets of the city.
…For Milwaukee Businesses
Open data allows Milwaukee businesses to create more opportunities for residents to interact with their products. For example, one of Milwaukee’s numerous breweries could design an app that would encourage people to share their drinking experiences, providing product interaction and direct product feedback on a much broader scale than typical. Providing consumers with fun, useful product interaction encourages sales and brand propagation.
…For Milwaukee Startups and Small Businesses
When small businesses adopt open data standards, they also increase data functionality and product interaction. Open data apps help businesses understand how customers interact with their product, and often reveal interest in a secondary product line, based on real user feedback. For many tech startups, the entire business model is based around the availability and functionality of one newly created tool or application.
…For Milwaukee Non-Profits
Non-profit organizations benefit from open data because open community access to outcomes and program activities creates awareness about the organization itself, the services they provide the community, and the impact they generate. In the long run, publishable progress reports and results create more support from the community.
Non-profits could provide the community with real time results, directing illustrating the money taxpayers saved each month due to a particular program’s impact, for example, by reducing recidivism by a certain percentage. Data availability also allows non-profits to make smarter decisions about their programming to create even more positive impact. When the larger community can easily observe these metrics, non-profits can more easily obtain needed financial support, and additional volunteers and supporters. Real time immediate information has a real impact on people and their communities.
…For Milwaukee Government
Integrating data from all the disparate government branch, department, and agency systems is currently next to impossible, especially considering the price tag. . The adoption of open systems will allow this integration to be far, far easier and much more cost effective than ever before. The benefits are numerous. Taxpayers will save money. Government efficiency will increase. Governments are constrained by budgets, so the ability to activate and empower citizens to impact or help the government and the city in some way is immensely beneficial.
For example, say the Green Milwaukee  initiative wants to more easily identify Milwaukee assets and resources for better government sustainability programs. When urban agricultural organizations (such as Victory Garden Initiative , Milwaukee Urban Gardens , Growing Power , and Sweet Water Foundation ) provide an open data list of all their local public gardens, the city government could commission a local university to build a comprehensive plotted map of urban farms and gardens. This example, like many others, would allow the City of Milwaukee to know the city better, and make changes and more broad sweeping initiatives sooner. Plus, Milwaukee residents can access this information and get involved with urban agriculture programs in their community.
…For Milwaukee Residents
Think about it. Milwaukee residents will have easy, immediate action to government actions, programs, metrics, and results. That means an energized, engaged populace making a difference on a local level. Citizens would have easier access to a mountain of public and private data, encouraging new business opportunities, because areas of need and demand will be much easier to identify. Parents and community activists would be able to directly measure a particular school’s performance through aggregated data based on the students’ achievements.
For example, if all Milwaukee community centers post (to their individual websites) a list of facilities, programming, and services offered, not only would that information be easily found and read on the site itself, but the data would also be publishable in a machine-readable format. Therefore, a technology entrepreneur could build an app, making it much easier for families to find classes and programs in their area that meet their topic/class/program, date, time, and availability criteria.
The benefits of the Milwaukee Data Initiative, of sharing data, and of data sharing as a policy for the City of Milwaukee and the surrounding region benefits everyone. Sharing information makes it less expensive to integrate with other systems, allowing for increased efficiency. Using open data to capture information, report information, and to connect with other organizations benefits everyone in Milwaukee. Open data creates ongoing opportunities for advocacy, and stimulates awareness for the City of Milwaukee’s biggest social and economic issues. Open data establishes new dialogues, inspiring more beneficial strategies for local organizations, more connections with customer bases, and more connections within our local neighborhoods.
Open data connects and unites Milwaukee.
As with any sweeping initiative, open data doesn’t come without risks. The definition of open data must be clearly defined and maintained; if certain organizations do not adopt industry standards, or seek to create their own unique standards, open data will not have the desired positive impact.
Nowadays, individuals and companies alike are concerned with information security. The security of private information must be clearly contained and is an important intrinsic component to the open data paradigm. So open data is about sharing summarized data and metrics, while maintaining the privacy rights of individuals and protecting access to that private data.
When plotting data on a localized map, while it’s beneficial to access and observe real time trending information on economic and social conditions, there is always a risk of shortsightedness. Small bits of information, even if compiled over time, can potentially result in an interpretable, subjective snapshot. Additionally, changing conditions must be understood to make veritable community impact. For example, if twelve months of data are compiled and a specific problem is identified, the implementation of a solution might span another year, at which time conditions may have changed. So data must be carefully understood before it is compiled and summarized, and long-term initiatives must have future data sets in mind, not simply present conditions.
Call To Action
Unless we want to watch our great city continue to struggle, now is the time to adopt open data standards across Milwaukee and the surrounding region. Please join us at the Milwaukee Data Initiative as we encourage a unified commitment to adopting data sharing standards, and to adopting a standard set of future requirements for all information systems. Visit the Milwaukee Data Initiative website for information on open data guidelines: http://milwaukeedata.org/blog/about/data-guidelines/. 
We want to see Milwaukee enter the next phase of evolution at the forefront, before it’s too late. Commit today to adapting internal policies allowing your organization to share regularly updated information in real time, while also establishing procedures for securing that information.
Open data will revitalize our city’s economy, establishing an entrepreneur community centered on Milwaukee information, using open data systems to foster the establishment of more startups, creating ongoing opportunities for employment and economic growth. We want to see all Milwaukee companies, organizations, and government offices adopt data sharing and open data policies for a better, connected, and united future.
Questions? Please feel free to reach out to us. Open data fosters collaboration and we’re happy to help. Contact MDI today to get started.