What Two Years of Open Data Has Done for Pittsburgh

From helping address the opioid epidemic to neighborhood planning, the city’s data efforts have had tangible impacts on citizens.

by SanJana Dayanada, Robert Burack, Data-Smart City Solutions / November 16, 2017
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto (David Kidd)

This story was originally published by Data-Smart City Solutions

After he assumed office in early 2014, Pittsburgh mayor William Peduto’s administration began an effort to make the city’s data open and accessible by joining the existing vanguard of cities with open data programs. Spurred by the traditional adage that a good government is an open one and a desire to move towards transparency after the controversially opaque administration of his predecessor, Peduto’s mandate was to ensure a more responsive city government. In order to do so, his administration has sought to equip residents and neighborhood organizations with the tools and information they need to work toward stronger, more equitable communities.

In joining forces with surrounding Allegheny County and the University of Pittsburgh, the City of Pittsburgh launched the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center (WPRDC), the country’s first truly regional open data platform, which has emerged as a national model for open data collaboration among municipalities, public authorities, nonprofits, and community groups. This week, in celebration of two years of open data in the region and one year since the launch of its popular Burgh’s Eye View mobile web application, the city’s Digital Services Team released an open data progress report, detailing its accomplishments and efforts to make its data an accessible public asset.

In focusing the report on user stories—both from external researchers and residents as well as other city departments—the Digital Services team hopes to expand the audience for open data, demonstrate its usefulness to city leaders and departments, and bolster emerging communities of practice. “We’ve been busy over the past few years building out our infrastructure for open data and understanding which information is most important to residents and community organizations,” said Laura Meixell, Assistant Director for Digital Services in the City’s Department of Innovation and Performance. “We’re excited to finally be telling our story, and use the release of our progress report as an opportunity to increase support for transparent, responsive government.”

User Story: Open Data is helping to address the opioid epidemic 

The first law of geography says that “everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.” Zan Dodson, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Public Health, knows this well. As both a geographer and public health researcher, Dodson focuses on how surroundings affect outbreaks of certain infections and chronic diseases. Using the City of Pittsburgh’s public safety open data sets, Dodson has been advancing the region’s response to the opioid overdose epidemic.

Dodson first mapped opioid-related arrests to find areas—what he calls “hot spots”—where the city could focus its prevention efforts. While most arrest maps merely visualize the number of incidents, he added a time component, which enabled him to identify acute hot spots—areas that experienced short-term spikes in significant drug traffic or arrests. By identifying these areas, he began to better understand where outbreaks in opioid use were happening.+

 Postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Public Health Zan Dodson

Dodson passed information on these hot spots to public health officials, who are working to coordinate their response to the epidemic. “Noticing these trends enables us to target interventions more effectively” said Dodson. Medical professionals and first responders “can then supply these areas with clean needle exchanges, Narcan kits (a drug for emergency opioid overdose treatment), and readily available medical aid.” Dodson is working with first responders in the City and the County Health Department to help prevent fatal drug overdoses in these areas. His results are informing the design and implementation of a “Leave Behind” program, where first responders can provide Narcan kits for those who refuse transport to the emergency department.

While using data to find the areas most affected by drug trafficking is only the first step in addressing the opioid epidemic in Pittsburgh, it’s an important one. “It’s a valuable asset for researchers across all fields.” said Dodson.

Dodson plans to continue tackling meaningful public health problems using open data. He plans to use pollution data, public safety data, and building data from the City to get a better understanding of the primary social influencers of health in Pittsburgh.

User Story: Open Data is helping a Pittsburgh neighborhood for the future

In Pittsburgh’s Homewood, Manchester-Chateau, and Hazelwood neighborhoods, teams of City planners are using open data to inform comprehensive neighborhood plans. These ten- to twenty-year plans will set short and long-term community priorities around housing, mobility, open space, public art, economic development, and a host of other areas.

“There is some catalytic change coming to each of these neighborhoods,” said Demi Kolke, a senior planner at the City’s Department of City Planning. “Comprehensive plans help us figure out: how do we get ahead of neighborhood-level changes and be organized in a way to benefit the residents there?”

Working with community members and external consultants, the planning processes began with the creation of an existing conditions report for each community. The teams used a number of open data sets, including tax delinquency and streetscape data, to set a baseline for each community. “Requesting data from different City departments can be difficult,” said Kolke, “but using the WPRDC makes the process seamless.”

Picture from the community meeting in the Homewood neighborhood

Once the existing conditions are understood, each team will host a public kick-off meeting to get input around both the plan’s broad vision and concrete, tangible action items. “A big focus is to ensure that residents not only feel ownership of their neighborhood’s plan, but that they tangibly have ownership,” said Kolke. “What they say has a genuine impact.”

To aid other neighborhoods who may wish to make their own conditions report and/or a comprehensive plan, the Department of City Planning is at work on a toolkit detailing which open datasets to use, which topics to address, and how to go about every step of the process. To complement the data in the condition reports, the teams met with community members to better understand their history and lived experience in the respective neighborhoods. “Everyone’s lives are affected by their built environments,” said Stephanie Joy Everett, a senior planner. “Who they become is a part of that.”

With open data as a foundation, and resident voices and involvement propelling the process, the Department of City planning is setting meaningful goals for the futures of historically underinvested Pittsburgh neighborhoods.

More Progress to Come

An early challenge for the Digital Services team in crafting the report was finding user stories. “You don’t know all the ways in which your open data is meaningful to users,” said Meixell. “And it’s often difficult to actually find users other than those who reach out to you through partnerships.“ To broaden their search, the team has used social media channels and the city’s Medium publication to put the call for stories. “We’ve been learning that open data in Pittsburgh has not only been meaningful for users outside of the city, but it’s been an important tool for users inside the city to move forward their work. The City Planning story shows that.”

The team hopes to release additional progress reports on an annual basis, collecting user stories throughout the year and through multiple channels. Additionally, they plan to distribute print copies of the report to Departmental heads and community nonprofit leaders, to build both practice around and support for the continued release of data.