Chattanooga Public Library and Open Data

This is the transcript for my presentation on 9–25–14 at the Code for America Summit. Slides are available on Slideshare.

[slide 1]

Thank you for having me. It is such an honor to be able to share anything with this audience.

Here are my goals for the next 5 minutes. Yes, just 5 minutes. If I’m successful, everyone will leave the room today with a better understanding of two things:

  1. You’ll have a broader understanding of public libraries as flexible infrastructure, and you’ll be inspired by the many different ways they can be implemented in their communities
  2. You’ll know the story of how Chattanooga Public Library collaborated with the office of Mayor Andy Berke and Open Chattanooga to become both the open data platform for the city and the home field for civic engagement related to open data and civic geeketry in general.

So let’s get on with it.

[slides 2 — 4]

First, let’s talk libraries. I like to think of libraries as the original sharing economy. Forget Uber and Airbnb. Libraries are agreements that communities have made to pool resources and share access to those resources. This way everybody doesn’t have to buy their own copy or version of each ‘whatever’. Collaborative consumption seems to be the popular label or descriptor for this kind of activity now.

[slide 5]

But collaborative consumption doesn’t sufficiently describe what we are doing with libraries now. Thanks to the internet, the whole world of media is now read/write. The long chains of publication and distribution have been broken down; everyone is a producer and editor. Now we are looking at libraries as centers for both individual and collaborative production, as well as consumption. We offer access to a different suite of resources: tools, space, instruments.

So before I bridge to talking specifically about locally generated data as a library collection, I encourage anyone and everyone here to think differently about their library and its role in their community. We do everyone a disservice when we take a literal, exclusively bookish, 20th century approach to library service design for our communities. There are just so many other possibilities.

[slides 6 — 7]

So. Library collections. Here we are Chattanooga. Take a look at these. I’ve got to tell y’all, this is really very normal. Totally not unique to Chattanooga.

I moved to Chattanooga a couple years ago because I was presented with an unusually great opportunity to rethink the public library in a big way. The library in Chattanooga certainly needed a lot of love, the political climate was supportive and ripe for change, and as you’ve likely heard, our city has this massive passive fiber optical network that gives folks access to 1gps internet speeds at very low cost. These things all intersected to make a perfect storm for innovation, so for me it was a no-brainer to make this mid sized southeastern city my home.

[slides 8 — 9]

What you are looking at in these pictures is the Chattanooga Public Library’s 4th Floor, an attic space formerly packed to the ceiling with junk, but now known and loved as a hub for civic innovation, a public makerspace, a GigLab, and perhaps most importantly a flexible beta space simply for trying new ideas in public. Our library is a community platform: not a set of services bestowed upon the community from experts on high, but services informed, driven, and even delivered by the community itself. One of our greatest community-driven achievements on the 4th Floor, and the one I’m here to talk about today, is our collaborative open data project.

[slide 10]

The Chattanooga Public Library, Open Chattanooga, and the Benwood Foundation all came together to apply to the Knight Foundation for a community information grant a little more than year ago now. While the library was beginning to explore what digital collections and services (beyond the obvious ebooks, streaming video, and database access) might be, the Open Chattanooga movement was also gaining new membership and attention thanks to the election of Mayor Andy Berke and the selection of Chattanooga as a Code for America fellowship city. The proposal we all put together focused on the following three points, and please allow me to apologize in advance for showing you the textiest slide I’ll ever show on a screen. I’m just really proud of the way this is described.

[slide 11]

The City: Reform.
The Mayor’s Office will develop and implement strategies to shift city departments and policies toward openness, setting the standard for public information to be easily available to and understandable by citizens.
The Library: Access.
The Public Library will create an open data portal, a one-stop-shop for local data to be used by citizens, including developers, designers, journalists, non-profit organizations, and researchers.
The Brigade: Engage.
Using the public data opened by the City and hosted on the portal, the Open Chattanooga Brigade- a citizen-led team of creative thinkers, neighborhood advocates, data nerds, designers, developers, and entrepreneurs- will train citizens to create visualizations, apps, and other solutions to address community information needs.

So “Why do this at public library”, right?

Public libraries have hosted municipal collections on their shelves for years. When you look beyond those fascinating volumes of government generated data, you’ll find that public libraries all adhere to collection development policies. These policies assure that library collections will be an accurate reflection of diverse community needs. We don’t buy books that offer just one perspective on a topic, we buy books that offer a variety of different perspectives so citizens can make their own informed decisions. This means that a data portal living at rather than is maintained and curated by crew of people invested in collecting all kinds of locally sourced data, not just local government data. The library can grab relevant sets from local nonprofits, from other government entities, or from citizen science projects, because collecting resources from these entities fits squarely within the scope of our mission. When an open data project is hosted at a library, the scope of the collection is expanded. This provides more opportunities for citizens to engage with the collections.

[slide 12]

So together, thanks to the Knight Foundation and the Benwood Foundation, we built a team: and I dare say they are a team of total badasses. I want to recognize the amazing work of Jenny Park and Tim Moreland, each of whom transitioned into open data related roles in the mayors office in addition to their massive workloads at the regional planning agency. And again because of this generous support, we were able to hire Sean Brewer as the public library’s Open Data Specialist. Sean’s position has now been absorbed and he is a full time city employee. Every day, Sean Brewer wakes up and it is his job to think about data collections and the ways we can make those collections more accessible and useful to citizens. In addition, Kyle Gordy, the library’s web designer brings his empathy and his user centered design expertise to all of the projects now driven out of the library’s 4th Floor. He’s a tremendous asset to the community.

[slide 13]

This is what it looks like when our staff is working on the 4th floor. We open to the public at 2:00 PM daily, at which point library staff begin coworking alongside library patrons who have arrived to use our laser cutter, 3D printers, other tools, or even just the smokin’ fast wifi.

[slide 14]

The data portal itself lives at and tweets as @chadataportal. Take a minute to browse the collection some time. Our initial plan was to build out a custom skinned CKAN portal, with further intentions to develop a smooth, automated, user-friendly CKAN installer so that it would be easier for other libraries to follow in our footsteps. This whole endeavor proved to be difficult with a capital D, and everyone was incredibly pleased when partnering with Socrata to develop a portal became a possibility. We love their work, and we are all so happy that we can focus more on collecting, curating, and working with data rather than the platform itself.

[slide 15]

And that is exactly what we’ve done: collected, curated, and interpreted community data. At the time of this talk, the portal has quite a few datasets available. Sean, Kyle, and Chattanoogans have built and launched a series of tools, narratives, and visualizations that are all available and catalogued on the Open Chattanooga site. This is an important distinction we’ve made: the library can host the data collections and thus offer some degree of neutrality as the steward of the data. Open Chattanooga, the citizen group, takes on the applications that interpret the data. While we haven’t drawn a hard line between the two roles yet, it is certainly something we are all conscious of.

[slide 16 — 17]

Have a quick look at a couple of things that have been built since we lifted the data portal. You’ll have more fun with these things if you look at them, rather than look at my screenshots, so I won’t spend long here. Know that I’ll publishing a transcript of this talk, so it will be easy to find all of these links and follow up. is a really interesting heatmap that allows users to think about public safety concerns on a block by block basis. The bike parking locator is another lovely app worth taking a look at. Most importantly, more of these are showing up every day, thanks to increased data availability and awareness.

[slide 18]

So I’ll leave you on that note. Thanks so much for everyone’s time. I hope you will explore our work further, and I hope all of you are leaving thinking of your public library as a potential partner.

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