How New York City Tells the Story of Its Open Data Work

As open data work and availability continue to evolve, local governments are rolling out new ways to spread awareness.

by / October 3, 2018

New York City these days is dotted with high-tech hot spots, kiosks that are part of a program called LinkNYC. Thousands upon thousands of visitors and residents of the city walk past these screens, using them for everything from public Wi-Fi access to charging devices to getting info about city services.

This September, however, users of the more than 1,700 active LinkNYC kiosks throughout the city might have noticed something new on the screens: brightly colored blue and yellow features, almost like testimonials for open data. These testimonials are simple, featuring the faces of real people, their job titles or affiliations, and a quick list of what they accomplished with open data as well as the data sets they used.

For example, one screen says: “Rentlogic, Yale Fox… I used NYC OpenData to bring transparency to the rental market. Data used: open HPD violations, DOB violations, DOB ECB Violations.” There’s a picture of Fox, and a second note, reading: “I am an entrepreneur.”

That’s it. Simple, clear, easy to read and understand.

Other featured stories include civic technologists who used New York open data to bring more transparency to community projects, a data scientist who used it to predict the lifespan of New York street trees and an environmental planner who showed how the city’s sewer system works among others.

Craig Campbell, a special advisor to the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics — which is the primary municipal agency behind the city’s open data work — recently spoke with Government Technology about this storytelling campaign.

“It’s to give people a sense of what is possible using open data,” Campbell explained. “Everyone need not use open data, but everyone should have the opportunity to use open data. This storytelling campaign is designed to get the word out about the resources that exist.”

To date, New York City has published more than 2,000 data sets, with an ongoing release of more. This has led to more than a million users accessing New York City open data, many of whom create projects like the ones described above.

This storytelling effort in New York City dates back years, spanning more than just the vignettes on the kiosks. The local government’s open data efforts, however, date back even further. In 2012, the city passed a law requiring an annual open data report available to the public that outlines information such as what data has been released, or which sets are running behind schedule. Essentially, the report details all aspects of what the city government is doing to comply with its open data law.

In the past two years, part of the focus of that report, Campbell said, has become to “make the data seem more real by telling real stories about the people behind the data.” This effort has taken a wide range of forms, from videos to updates on the city’s open data portal. Campbell also noted the work in its current form would not be possible without Reboot Inc., a design firm with which the city has partnered, or the work of Al Webber, the city’s director of open data.

And New York City is far from alone in its use of such storytelling to share its municipal tech and innovation work. This discipline has become a priority for jurisdictions across the country, with many of the foremost experts in the field preaching the value of celebrating data wins.

Essentially, the public needs to understand what data is available, why it matters and how it’s being used — both within local government and by civic tech groups — to improve quality of life, if open data is to become a valued and important part of our society moving forward. Detroit has even gone so far as to create a position in its city hall for a chief storyteller. Meanwhile, many city halls across the country are turning to design philosophies to bolster efficiency and help create human-centered products that are easy to access and use for constituents.

So, while these bright screens on New York City kiosks may be novel now, odds are good that this project — or others like it — will spread rapidly. Campbell described it as a way to “open up the hood, pull back the curtain” on not only the logistics but also the importance of open data work in municipal government.

Zack Quaintance Staff Writer

Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.