Seattle tech firm Socrata has found its niche in public transparency, specializing in helping governmental organizations seeking to make their raw data available online and easy for people to understand.
Socrata was managing data for small and midsize businesses when it got a lucky break. Barack Obama’s 2008 election team read an article about the Seattle tech company and enlisted it to help publish campaign contributions online.
Now, Socrata is the behind-the-scenes partner for government bodies around the U.S. and in some foreign countries, helping them publish data online that the public can see and actually understand.
One of Socrata’s customers is the city of Seattle, which last year joined the White House’s Police Data Initiative and pledged to release data sets that have not before been made public.
The Seattle Police Department plans to outfit about 640 officers with body cameras by the end of the year.
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The state Legislature passed a bill this year to partly define what information collected with body cameras can be disclosed to the public, and what to keep private, such as video of some sexually violent offenses, child victims and identities of crime witnesses. The bill was supported by Seattle’s mayor and police chief.
Amid broader scrutiny, Seattle police also have faced pressure recently to publish complaints made against the department as well as to post body-camera footage online.
Socrata’s technology can do that.
The tech company, which has grown from 12 employees in 2009 to 185 today, uses its technology to run an agency’s raw data through machine-learning and annotation programs that spit out clean, easily understood spreadsheets and tables. That information can be fed into other Socrata programs to create maps and graphs to help people visualize the material.
“It makes it useful for citizens and useful for employees,” said Socrata founder and CEO Kevin Merritt.
Helping governments tackle transparency issues is not even remotely what Merritt had in mind when he launched the company in 2007. It was known then as Blist and targeted at helping other businesses. After the Obama campaign team stumbled upon the company, Blist got a lucky break — Obama won, and all of a sudden the company was working with the federal government.
Blist began picking up other government clients, and the feeling within the young team was “cathartic,” Merritt said. The engineers were passionate about helping public agencies put data online, feeling they were furthering a transparency trend that has increased as the Internet has become ubiquitous.
The company began working more and more with governmental customers, and changed its name to Socrata in 2009.
As Merritt got his first look at what it was like working with the institutions, he learned they were not the most tech-savvy of organizations. “It was like going 15 years back in time,” he said.
Many government bodies, including Seattle’s, had more than 1,000 separate systems unable to communicate with each other at all. Socrata aims to make it easier for government employees to search data for trends and connections involving transportation, crime and pretty much anything about which a city collects information.
For Seattle, which will pay Socrata $314,000 this year, that involves huge amounts of data. In February, Mayor Ed Murray signed an open data policy, telling departments to be “open by preference” and to publish data after making sure no private information is being divulged.
Michael Mattmiller, city of Seattle chief technology officer, said Socrata’s format helps the more than 1,500 “civic technologists,” or tech-savvy Seattle residents who create applications and other technology using city data, find the information they need.
“We could put our information online ourselves, but we find value working with a partner that understands government and the power of what open data can do,” Mattmiller said.
Socrata’s next challenge with Seattle will be the work on police data, especially in making sure, when necessary, that crime victims’ identifying information is kept private. Socrata’s software is designed to pick up on and redact such information. People then can make final checks to assure the program is accurate.
“Police and sheriff departments are going through a fairly significant change of approach to data,” Merritt said. “They now recognize they can use data to restore and rebuild trust with communities they serve.”
Socrata has more than 1,400 customers globally, including 150 of the largest 250 cities in the U.S.