It's time for Madisonians to dig in — to data.
Mayor Paul Soglin and others on Tuesday offered a glimpse at the potential of the city's new open data policy, which is making most data held by city agencies on crime statistics, buses, property transactions and other subjects available to the public for free through a single web page.
The information is seen as a potential gold mine to the tech community for building applications for smartphones and web pages with information and connections on anything from tracking a bus to find whether a beach is open.
Developers see creating applications and web pages as volunteering for the community in the same way some give time as a reading tutor or working at a food bank.
It provides an opportunity for creative and talented people to make living in Madison better, Soglin told local media, city officials and tech enthusiasts at a press conference Tuesday at Sector67, a popular prototype and innovation center where members pay a fee and have access to equipment and interaction with others on the near East Side.
"This is one of many steps we'll be taking in the future," he said.
In June, the City Council made Madison the first city in the state and second in the nation to adopt an open data ordinance. The city has now put initial data on its website with more than a dozen data sets already available.
"It's a new image of Madison as a modernized city, a forward-thinking city," said Ald. Scott Resnick, 8th District, who worked with city IT Director Paul Kronberger and the city attorney's office to craft the ordinance.
Supporters say the data portal will improve government transparency, provide public services through computers and smartphones, and ignite economic growth in tech industries.
Much of the data is already available through open records requests, often for a fee, or on various city websites. But the information is now becoming available for free on an anonymous, self-serve basis.
Madison already has a group called HackingMadison committed to writing city data-based applications. One popular app called BusRadar lets Android users track their bus in real time. The free app has already been downloaded 10,000 times.
Greg Tracy of HackingMadison demonstrated another simple app called Adopt-a-Hydrant that locates and lets residents "adopt" fire hydrants with a promise they'll clear their hydrant of snow after storms to make neighborhoods safer.
Resnick showed a web application on madison.com that displays the location of crimes that occur over a particular time period.
Soglin said the data could be used to produce an app to make it much easier to register a pet, which would dramatically increase compliance and boost revenues.
In other communities, tech developers have released apps for everything from tracking snow plow routes to finding towed cars, Resnick said. At the federal level, open data policies have been a source of economic development, including GPS and weather forecasting, he said.
"Release the data and wait for the creativity," Tracy said, adding, "the whole tech community is applauding the city right now."