Open Data Evolution: From Increasing Transparency to Engaging Citizens

Small, medium and large cities share how open data efforts are evolving in their communities.

by / March 10, 2015
Jonathan Feldman, chief information officer, Asheville, N.C. Ian Curcio

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.

Examples of citizen-inspired entrepreneurial projects include an app that uses live data from city parking lots in Ann Arbor, Mich., to let people know in real time how many spaces are available in each lot and a community development map of Kansas City, Mo., that keeps neighborhood groups from duplicating their funding requests.

Local government staff also are using data in creative ways. For instance, Denver debuted the pocketgov city services app in January. The app gives citizens access to various data as well as the schedules for street cleaning, recycling and other services. Citizens can opt in to receive notification via email or text that a service is coming to their block.

“What we’re attempting in Denver with pocketgov is to create a dynamic application platform that will engage our citizens and developers to more effectively interact with the data,” explained Frank Daidone, chief information officer for the city and county of Denver. “The next phase for open data will be analyzing the interactions with the data allowing us to more intelligently focus our resources and taxpayer dollars in areas of greatest need.”

Just a few years ago, open data initiatives consisted of a few data sets being posted to a government website. Now the initiatives have evolved into new ways of engaging citizens and providing more efficient services. Local governments today routinely post a wider range of data sets to their sites and ask residents what kind of data they want to see.

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 Formats

CSV: 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

Ann Arbor, Mich., has a variety of static data sets available for download on its Data Catalog website, like city amenities, crime data and permits under review. But A2OpenBook offers an interactive experience that allows users to drill down into specific financial data sets. Ann Arbor reports that for A2OpenBook, the most often used data set is Expenses by Service Area, followed closely by Vendor Payments. The update process for A2OpenBook is fully automated, although the Finance Department also contributes data manually to the city’s Data Catalog in PDF form. Ann Arbor IT Director Tom Shewchuk recommends that cities avoid manual entry of data sets whenever possible.

“The best piece of advice I can offer is to make sure the data can be presented via a systematic approach versus by hand,” said Shewchuk. “This ensures the timeliness, consistency and accuracy of the data.”

Beyond the strides in transparency resulting from open data efforts, Ann Arbor offers another kind of data — infrared photos — to help citizens better understand their stormwater utility bills. The more impervious surface a parcel has, the greater the rain runoff into the stormwater system, and therefore the higher the property owner’s stormwater utility rates. The city used a flyover with infrared and other technology to capture images of each parcel’s impervious surface. Including this data in stormwater bills improved customer understanding and service, Shewchuk said.

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.

In Asheville, N.C., the 2-year-old open data initiative is driven by a framework of the 3 P’s, according to Feldman, which are “pragmatics, policy and participation.”

“If something is useful to staff to make into open data, we do it,” Feldman explained. “If policymakers want to see it published, same. If we get a lot of citizen input that citizens want to see a data set published, we do it.”

Asheville’s online catalog has powered civic hackathons like ReRoute AVL, which built projects around multimodal transportation, a business-focused Open Data Day, as well as Hack for Food, a 2013 event held in conjunction with the National Day of Civic Hacking, aimed at tackling local food insecurity.

Open data advocates frequently cite the possibility of government data driving local jobs, but in the movement’s early stages, concrete examples can be hard to come by. In Asheville, however, BuildFax was built on selling business intelligence derived from open building permit data to insurance companies. The company employs more than 30 people, according to Feldman. There is also a successful map business in town (http://bestlocalmap.com) that was able to improve upon existing tourist maps by adding information gleaned from open data.

Dublin, Ohio, GIS Administrator Brandon Brown said the city of less than 45,000 is in the very early stages of its open data initiative. The effort has been driven internally by administrative staff. A small project team has begun researching philosophies, policies and technologies to aid in the creation of the city’s overall strategy and policy. Even though the initiative has not been driven by the public, Brown reports that the city has engaged the public and local business leaders in discussions regarding the type of data they would like to access.

Officials add, however, that they have been practicing various organically grown versions of open data for many years. For instance, its GIS group has long had a data download portal, and has recently transitioned to Esri’s Open Data platform. Other examples include access to automobile crash report data, crime data and information on building permits.
Pamela Martineau Contributing Writer