How Pittsburgh Built an Agile Product Shop

The rise of agile product development within government offers possibilities for cities to develop their own solutions through a self-organized, collaborative effort.

by Robert Burack, Data-Smart City Solutions / December 20, 2016

This story was originally published by Data-Smart City Solutions.

The proliferation of civic tech projects has led to a growing number of vendors who offer off-the-shelf products for cities and municipalities. At the National League of Cities summit, which brought over 3,500 elected officials and city staffers to Pittsburgh in November 2016, the exhibition hall was full of companies looking to connect with municipal representatives. For many of their needs – a platform for better civic engagement, a tool to track legislation, an application to visualize permit data – private industry offers a modern, customizable, low-barrier solution.

While this kind of partnership has led to advent of many notable civic tech projects, off-the-shelf solutions often require trade-offs, such as high purchase costs or a potential disinvestment in a city’s capacity to develop its own products. While private solutions are increasingly customizable, the rise of agile product development within government offers possibilities for a city or municipality to develop its own solutions, through a self-organized, collaborative effort designed around the specific needs of departments or communities.

Several blocks from the exhibition hall, the city of Pittsburgh’s Analytics and Strategy team was celebrating the recent launch of Burgh’s Eye View, an application they had built entirely internally in multiple iterations over the prior year. By pulling together open-source resources, investing in their own skillsets, and working closely with city departments to understand needs and make refinements, the team had built a product not found in any vendor’s lineup. The story of Burgh’s Eye View offers not only a window into an innovative application, but a testament to what can emerge when a city invests in its own civic tech resources – an agile product shop.

Burgh’s Eye View

While municipal governments have made significant progress in advancing the availability of datasets through open data portals, a more elusive goal remains: how to expand their thoughtful use beyond a handful of civic data enthusiasts. The playfully-named Burgh’s Eye View, which launched to the public in November, is Pittsburgh’s well-designed effort to address this issue and transform the experience of open government.

Built as a “one stop shop” for residents and community groups to access and view the datasets that Pittsburgh has published on its regional open data platform, the new responsive web application allows the city’s residents, for the first time, to gain visual insight into a broad range of citywide and neighborhood data — including crime and other public safety incidents, building permits and code violations, and 311 service requests. 

Developed by the city’s Analytics and Strategy team, Burgh’s Eye View features a simple, catch-all search bar and date range search, a map that responds and updates as users select the data they want to see, and a mobile-optimized layout for use on smartphones. Users can click checkboxes to turn dataset filters on or off, filter by area (by neighborhood, police zone, City Council district, or Public Works division), or select from dropdown options to display more specific results. Residents looking to see crime in their neighborhood over the past month, for example, can select the date range, keep just the “Police Blotter” layer on, and filter according to where they live.

Throughout the development process, the team focused on how they could best improve data access and reduce technical barriers by building an application that would increase and diversify the current audience for civic data. The result is an intuitive and attractive user interface, and a commitment to continuing to design for inclusivity.

“The way you make data matter for people who aren’t data scientists is through visualization, and probably the most successful kind of visualization that exists is a map,” said Nick Hall, Open Data Services Engineer for Pittsburgh. “So much of Pittsburgh’s data — because we’re a city — lives in space. It’s geographic. By building one map that can contain lots of different datasets within it, we’re getting the most ‘bang for our buck’ in terms of making this information accessible to residents.”