Open the data and the citizen miners will come — and they just might develop an app, map or other innovative product not yet envisioned by busy local government officials.
That’s been the experience of many local governments as they place more data online for public consumption. Initially open data initiatives grew out of a desire to increase government transparency and reduce staff time in processing public information requests. For the most part, the initiatives are achieving those goals. But a growing number of entrepreneurial residents — in addition to creative local government staff — are using the data to develop products that help citizens access services and interact with public agencies. Local governments are even sponsoring hackathons as a way to entice residents to develop new apps from the data.
Settling on Standards
How do cities make sure their data is usable?
In Kansas City, Mo., staff members provide data in a format that is easily downloadable, searchable and reusable by commonly used applications. Open, machine-readable formats are the industry standard, and cities say getting existing data into usable shape (and keeping it up-to-date) is the hard part.
Denver uses industry standard data formats CSV and PDF. Other standards used by the city come from the White House and the Open Data Foundation. Pasadena uses open data standards imposed by widely used data hosting services, like Junar and Socrata.
Pasadena leaders have encouraged both companies to create a standards body to help other cities release data that will spur product development opportunities for application developers.
Data on Ann Arbor, Mich.’s financial site, A2OpenBook, downloads as CSV, an industry standard for data exchange. The city Data Catalog follows industry standards as well — KML and shape files for GIS layers and CSV for data, for example.
GIS data sets in Asheville, N.C., are delivered via an ETL (extract, transform, load) program in multiple common formats like shape files, KML, KMZ and GeoJSON. Other business data is presented using CSV.
And while direct economic benefits from open data initiatives can be difficult to trace, most agree that they hold intrinsic civic value for a community.
“Understand that open data is good for everyone, not just citizens, not just businesses, not just for journalists, but for city staff, city managers and city council members,” said Asheville, N.C., CIO Jonathan Feldman.
Like many other jurisdictions, Denver’s open data initiative began as an employee-driven effort to get information out to the public in order to be more transparent and save staff time spent processing requests for information. While agencies are encouraged to contribute data to the Open Data Catalog (ODC), it needs to meet basic standards and contain metadata to ensure it is usable, city staff told Government Technology. The data evaluation step is currently being built directly into the project management intake process.
Most Denver agencies are responsible for providing their data sets, except for crime and financial information, which are extracted directly from departmental applications. And the information is being put to good use: Researchers have used data from the ODC to develop a metric to predict when market rate affordable housing will be demolished or remodeled based on factors like increases in land value and declining building value. In addition, as part of a community health grant, local students have used Denver’s data to look at access to physical activity in certain census tracts.
Data FormatsCSV: File format used by spreadsheet, database and statistical applications.
PDF: Portable Document Format intended for sharing documents while maintaining a document’s integrity.
KML/KMZ: Keyhole Markup Language is an XML-based language schema for displaying geographic annotation.
SHP: Geospatial vector shape file data format for GIS software.
A 2012 hackathon brought the Kansas City, Mo., IT Division and the Public Works Department together to create the city’s open data initiative. The parking garage data they released led to an award-winning app and the formal introduction of the initiative to city leaders. The city’s open data portal, https://data.kcmo.org, was launched the following January.
Portal contents in Kansas City are driven by information requests and votes that come in from a crowdsourced engagement site (www.allourideas.org/kcmo) that solicits ideas from the public. “If you post data to your portal, but it isn’t being used, it’s of no value,” said Kansas City, Mo., Open Data Coordinator Kimberly Mesa.
Engaged citizens have a vested interest in knowing precisely how government manages public dollars. A hallmark of transparent governments focused on building the public’s trust in recent years are open checkbook-style sites that slice and dice government revenue and spending in a variety of ways. According to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, 2013 was the first in year in which all 50 states published some kind of spending data online. Local governments are moving in this direction too.
Give the People What They Want
Here are the most widely used data sets in select cities around the country:
Asheville, N.C. City boundary data, crime, land use, zoning districts and building footprints
Baltimore Employee salaries, fixed speed cameras and arrest/crime stats
Denver Land use and crime data
Kansas City, Mo. Tow lot auction list, dangerous buildings, 311 and crime data
Las Vegas Building project inspections and checkbook data
Pasadena, Calif. Permit and code enforcement data
San Francisco Crime, emergency shelter waiting list and land use
Seattle Sold fleet equipment, building permits, fleet surplus/auction list and 911 incident response
Who’s in Charge?
In Kansas City, Mo., liaisons throughout the city government manually update data sets that don’t need frequent refreshes. For information that changes daily or weekly, like 311 and crime data, the
IT Division sets up automatic processing and uploading to the city open data portal. IT also does the heavy lifting on open data pursuits in Pasadena, Calif., where the Finance and Transportation departments contribute the most data. IT staff members prepare the data and update postings. Department-level subject matter experts suggest commonly requested data sets and review and confirm validity of the data once it is posted.
In Asheville, N.C., IT Services created the open data catalog and is responsible for maintaining it.
Once Dublin, Ohio’s open data effort is fully off the ground, city leaders’ initial thoughts are that IT staff will provide support and structure while various work groups will be responsible for content choice and update frequency.