Mark Headd Wants to Expose Philly’s Data

Can Michael Nutter’s new chief data officer revolutionize how government works?

Forget taking on cigar-smoking political bosses. Philly’s reform movement of the moment is focused online, on letting residents click a link and see how every dime gets spent and each decision is made.

Early this fall, Mayor Nutter hired one of the country’s first chief data officers, courting and winning over Mark Headd, once a Delaware state government IT staffer turned well-respected mobile app developer with a national profile and a sterling local reputation. Headd’s primary focus? Making good on an April executive order from Nutter that could be one of the most significant steps toward transparency in recent city history. Among other things, it calls for the regular upkeep and deployment of new city data online—everything from vacant land locations to campaign finance records. (Already, the city’s Licenses and Inspections department has plotted out the locations of business permits and zoning variance requests, with more data coming.)

Convincing skittish city agencies to let down their guard and give the public instant access to records is no easy task. It requires a deep understanding of city-government workflow; knowledge of dated IT infrastructure; and a connection to the growing civic-minded-hacker movement. So it’s helpful that Headd, 43, has experience in both worlds: He’s spent his weekends programming alongside young web developers (his portfolio includes a project called SEPTAlking that allows users to call in and hear regional rail schedules) and his weekdays working alongside bureaucrats.

But smart innovators often enter city government and come out one of two ways: quickly or quietly. So won’t Headd be swallowed by the slow-digesting enormity of an aging city workforce that’s reliably resistant to change? Probably, but the smart money is that he’ll inch the mountain forward before that happens. Uncertainties remain—like how much independence he’ll have, and how soon budget constraints could sideline his futuristic endeavor—but Headd will likely have some impact, because Nutter has finally given political cover to the open-data enthusiasts in the city workforce.

“I don’t have to finish to succeed,” Headd says. “I just need to convince enough people in City Hall that sharing is worth trying.”

This story originally appeared in the October issue of Philadelphia magazine.

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