Visualization Takes Open Data to the Next Level

An in-depth look at five interactive websites that offer fresh views of data.

by / June 2017
Shutterstock.com/Districtmobility.org

When Stephen Goldsmith was deputy mayor of New York City in 2010 and 2011, the city was working on processes to make data available to the public. “We have now gone from fulfilling that transparency goal, which has its own value, to thinking more fully about open data in its role for creating better community outcomes,” he said. That means considering how a sister agency could use data or how community groups could use it to identify and solve problems in their own neighborhood.

“You begin to think about data as driving value, as contrasted to data as transparency for its own sake,” he said. “Then visualization becomes critical. In fact, data without visualization is barely open data at all.”

Goldsmith, who is now a professor of practice of government at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program, pointed to Los Angeles’ GeoHub as an example of a site whose purpose is organizing data around what is most important to a city, which is location. He sees the open data maturity model following a similar path to the growth of e-government itself — it starts focused on one narrow goal, and then gradually becomes part and parcel of how government operates.

Government Technology took an in-depth look at five interactive sites that give both government agencies and their constituents fresh views of their data. We also interviewed the developers about the thinking behind their creation.

Burgh’s Eye View

If a neighborhood association in Pittsburgh is concerned about gang activity, its members can now map data about graffiti and crimes such as car break-ins using a new Web visualization tool called Burgh’s Eye View.

Determined to make its open data sets more valuable to residents and community groups, the city’s Analytics and Strategy team used open source tools to create a Web application that offers residents visual representations of everything from crime and other public safety incidents to 311 service requests, building permits and code violations. Data updates refresh the maps every night or even every hour.

Burgh’s Eye View comes in two flavors, one that is public-facing and another for city departments with slightly different information. (For instance, in the public version, crime data is made anonymous to the block level for privacy reasons.) The idea actually developed after requests from the police department for better tools.

“There was a variety of data coming from non-police sources that could be very useful to the police, including 311 calls,” said Laura Meixell, assistant director of performance improvement in the Department of Innovation and Performance.

Officers in the field as well as those in the intelligence unit were interested in getting that non-emergency request data to look at patterns. “Police and other first responders were very interested in data on abandoned buildings and condemnations, as well as places where the Bureau of Building Inspection had identified serious structural issues, so they would know that before entering the building,” she said.

The public-facing version was launched in October 2016, and Meixell said her team is building up a constituency via good old-fashioned shoe leather. “I had my whole staff going around with community affairs teams to community meetings,” she said. “If a neighborhood association held a meeting, we would show up and request 15 minutes to give a presentation. We want to help them understand how city data and operations can influence how they do their jobs.”

As an example, neighborhood organizations often try to help homeowners with “tangled title” situations, in which many generations of a family might live in a house, but it is unclear who owns it and should pay taxes. “Neighborhood organizations have had success with that and their work can be driven by data we have,” she said.

The site already has more than 10,000 users. “One organization asked us to enable customized embeddable mapping, so they could zoom in on their neighborhood and include the characteristics they were interested in, and embed that on their organization’s website,” Meixell said. “That is definitely doable.”

The site was created in-house using RStudio, an open source integrated development environment. “There are a lot of companies that would charge a lot of money to put this stuff together,” Meixell said. Although you need skilled staff members, the barrier for that has been coming down when it comes to data visualization, she believes. “For the scope we are building here, there are cheap and open source products you can start using right away. We started with one guy who had taken a course in grad school, but no one else had. We just sort of taught ourselves to do this.”

The in-house-created portal was born out of requests from the Pittsburgh police department for better data tools.


Ohio’s Interactive Budget

A year ago, if Ohio residents went looking for state budget details, they could find them in static documents and PDF files, but many of them were outdated by the time they were posted online. Today, citizens can get a much fuller picture, with the Ohio Office of Budget and Management’s (OBM) Interactive Budget portal.

What was definitely unavailable in previous budget documents posted online was context, said Derek Bridges, program administrator for the Ohio Administrative Knowledge System, the state’s enterprise resource planning system. He also has responsibility for several business intelligence initiatives. “It is fairly common for governments to build transparency sites, but they focus on which suppliers government gives money to. It was our stance, however, that those sites don’t tell the whole story of where the state’s money comes from, how it gets appropriated and where it goes. There is no single place to find that breadth of information.”

Creating a data visualization of the budget was something OBM executives had wanted to do for some time, Bridges said. “The opportunity presented itself because we were looking to move up the curve in terms of our maturity with data visualization throughout the state,” he said. “On the IT side, we were rolling out Tableau as our data visualization enterprise service. That allowed OBM, at minimal additional cost, to roll out this Interactive Budget website. They didn’t have to go buy a bunch of software on their own.”

In creating the site, the state tried to cast a wide net in terms of audience and make it as usable as possible to the general public, understanding that this site explains $70 billion in annual revenue and expenses.

One budget view shows state grants paid to government entities or nonprofits, with spending broken down by payee. “The first time we showed this to people, some said that it didn’t show them anything,” Bridges recalled. “Our argument was that it tells you a lot. These are all the grants and subsidies that the state distributes to universities, school districts and other entities. This tells the story. More than 80 percent of our spending is going to these subsidies. This gives you a picture of the variety of places the money is going.”

The site is organized with a drill-down hierarchy. On the left margin, you can drill back up through layers to where you started. “We try to leave the user breadcrumbs,” Bridges said. “This is explaining a lot of data. We didn’t want people getting lost.”

Users can download a PDF version of any visualization with one button click. “We wanted to allow people to grab a picture,” Bridges said, “understanding that they may navigate to a point, and then come back later. It might take them time to find the visual they were looking for.” Having that PDF or a printout should make it easier, he added.

The Interactive Budget is just the first step for Ohio. Since the Department of Administrative Services purchased a Tableau server and the state has rolled out enterprise data visualization as a service, 19 state agencies have a site on the server. Two hundred employees have desktop licenses, and 100 employees have received training.

Ohio%27s+Interactive+Budget

The state’s new data visualization brings context to $70 billion in budget information.

City Health Dashboard

A new online data visualization tool, the City Health Dashboard, has been created to improve city-level understanding of health and empower mayors, city managers and health officials to enact policies that target the risk factors and health conditions impacting their communities.

The website, created by the New York University School of Medicine’s Department of Population Health, presents 26 measures related to health across five areas: health outcomes, health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic factors, and physical environment. The data include traditional health metrics such as premature mortality, teen birth rate and adult obesity prevalence, as well as non-health measures that impact health, including unemployment rate, third-grade reading proficiency, neighborhood walkability and air quality.

The initial version of the dashboard includes data for four cities: Flint, Mich.; Kansas City, Kan.; Providence, R.I.; and Waco, Texas, although the goal is to scale it up to include hundreds of cities.

Developed with NYU’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, in partnership with the National Resource Network and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the dashboard puts into a framework data that hasn’t been visible to city-level managers before. “Many of these data elements are available at the county level, but city managers are responsible for making policies that influence the people who live in their boundaries,” said Marc Gourevitch, chair of the Department of Population Health at the NYU School of Medicine and principal investigator for the City Health Dashboard.

If a city is in the far southwest corner of a county that is four times as big as the city, the obesity rate data for the county is not that helpful, he said, and collecting that kind of data can be very expensive and time consuming. “The goal was to take data sets that power county-level data and code it to the city level.”

City Health Dashboard is a Ruby on Rails Web application with a Postgres database. For data visualizations, it uses Google Maps and amCharts. The app was designed by L+L Design and built by Andy Glass.

The visualization aspects of the site are key to its value, Gourevitch said. Imagine you are a health official in Waco concerned about obesity issues. Now you have a way to look at obesity rates on a map broken down by neighborhood census track. You could also see how those trends align with maps of “walkability” or physical inactivity among people who live in these neighborhoods. “That can be illuminating if you are trying to decide what to do about it,” he said. “What are the barriers to physical activity? What can be done about it? Changes could be made in terms of urban design or the creation of parks.”

The tool quickly graphs overlays of metrics and tells policymakers whether there is a strong or weak correlation between them.

Speaking with city managers and mayors over the last year, Gourevitch said, it has been striking how much demand there is for such a tool. “There is real hunger for data at the city level that is standardized. This allows them to compare where they are with similar cities. If we scale this to hundreds of cities, which is our goal, it will be possible to compare health measures with those in a like city, and get a sense for how they are doing.”

Look At Cook

Several years ago, when Chicago’s open data movement was getting off the ground, Web designers Derek Eder and Nick Rougeux created an application that tracked local lobbyist data (www.chicagolobbyists.org). That caught the eye of Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey, whose office asked the duo to create a tool to make the county’s budget easier to understand. The result, called Look at Cook, was launched in 2012 to give citizens a tool for asking questions about local government spending priorities and a way to track that spending over time. Look at Cook tracks government budgets and expenditures dating back to 1993.

Eder and Rougeux had experience in creating data visualizations through their work at the Web development shop Webitects. Their challenge was applying those skills to dense budget documents. “Budgets are complicated, and it can be very challenging to convey that information to the public,” Eder said. “The actual budget is released as a giant book, and even the summary is 300 pages long. Condensing that into something that people can meaningfully get information out of was a bit of a challenge, but one we wanted to take on.”

The real value of visualization is the ability to create something that at a glance allows you to see the overall picture as well as the trend lines, he said. “Because budgets are more than just one number every year, we allow you to dive into individual funds and departments, such as corrections, and see those trends,” Eder explained. “I have found with this site and other budget visualization sites that they are the clearest way you can describe what the government is doing.” For example, citizens could trace the impact of funding cuts for the Jail Diversion and Crime Prevention Division on the Corrections Department and Juvenile Justice Division.

In Cook County it is particularly important to clarify what the county is responsible for, Eder said. There is not a 100 percent overlap between the city of Chicago and the county, but most of the county is Chicago, so it can be difficult to discern whether the city or county operates a particular hospital or jail. “Budget visualization is a great way to show what things the county is responsible for,” he said.

The website is maintained by what Eder calls something of an unusual partnership. He continues to host the site while Fritchey owns the domain. Eder and Rougeux did the work pro bono and continue to help update it once a year. They used open source tools, notably Highcharts, a JavaScript charting library, and the Fusion Tables database tool from Google.

“All this information was available before,” Eder said. “As a citizen, you could go down to the county’s offices and look at the budget data. It was there. It was not a secret. What we did was make it more accessible.”

Cook County, Ill., helps answer citizens’ questions about local government spending priorities in a visually driven format.

District Mobility

The Washington, D.C., Department of Transportation (DDOT) has long sought to better understand congestion. A new interactive website tracks key performance indicators and allows district employees and citizens to get a better picture of specific metrics.

The project, which went live in February 2017, grew out of a request from the City Council to better understand multimodal congestion in the district. “We at DDOT took that request and ran with it, and probably took it further than was originally envisioned, but we made it so it really met the needs of the agency as well,” said Stephanie Dock, a research program administrator. The first aspect of the project was creating a baseline understanding of how the system is operating, with a focus on walking, biking, bus and driving. (The regional Metrorail system is not yet included.)

DDOT defined a series of performance measures that were meaningful for the system and sorted by data that it could capture regularly and reliably for the entire district. “Having this data up on the website means that whenever someone at DDOT is doing a project, we don’t need to do an initial round of data collection,” Dock said. “They can begin by looking at this data.”

The site allows information to be filtered easily, Dock said. Users can move between time periods. “For example, looking under congestion, and which bus routes are busiest, as you click through, you can pick times of day, and clicking through time periods, you can watch how those routes change throughout the day. I find it fascinating which routes carry huge numbers of people in the early evening, for example.”

The data will let DDOT start to overlay data sets. It can match high-ridership bus routes and travel time indexes for vehicle congestion. “If you have a really high ridership route on a very slow-moving road, adding buses isn’t necessarily going to solve the problem,” she said. “Then you might be adding more congestion.”

DDOT worked with data visualization agency Clever Franke to develop the site. “The council gave us funding and a timeline,” Dock recalled. “We had an all-out sprint from January to September last year to figure out the measures, calculate the data and build the website. Because of that funding, we got something built that is visually appealing and simple to use and interact with.”

District+Mobility

 A new website visually showcases multimodal transportation congestion in Washington, D.C.

David Raths contributing writer