After more than a year of discussion and development, Charlottesville, Va., has launched an open data portal that provides easy access to more than 70 data sets, as well as accompanying links that demonstrate how the info ties into five of the city’s long-term strategic goals.
The launch of this portal marks the end of a long journey toward increased online transparency for the city, which first started moving this way when Mayor Michael Signer began to hold office hours shortly after being inaugurated in 2016. Signer almost immediately met with a group of citizens who voiced support for an online open data portal.
Initially, those involved with the project thought the portal would primarily benefit the public, serving as an easy-to-use online hub for data, but in the early days of the new platform, city staff have found themselves often using it because it organizes, compiles and cleans up data they rely on to do their jobs, said Mark Simpson, geographic information system (GIS) coordinator for Charlottesville and one of the portal's architects. The portal, which launched in August, is currently in phase one of development.
“We’re definitely not done, and it’s a nice platform because you can one by one keep adding data sets to it,” said Simpson.
Of the 72 data sets currently on the portal, 65 are spatial, meaning they are related to geographic locations and mapping. These sets include data about real estate, roads and addresses. The reason the portal is so heavily oriented toward this type of info is the technology used to create it was part of existing GIS software the city had been using internally. Developers were already paying for the functionality to create an open data portal, Simpson said; they just needed to hone a plan and set it up. After doing so, developers then began adding non-spatial data that was publicly available and of interest to residents, including information about crime.
Jason Ness, business development manager for Charlottesville, said part of the reason the city was committed to creating this portal was that leadership saw it as an opportunity to both help the community and to interact with citizens in a positive way. This is evident in how they’ve integrated data with the city’s long-term goals, five of which are linked to the bottom of the portal. These can help visitors see how public info supports goals like fostering a healthy and safe city, or a strong, creative and diversified economy.
Using tech to display progress toward city planning efforts is a budding trend in technology in government. Another new trend as of late is to add other functionalities that go beyond simply listing data, with municipal agencies working to create actionable tools that can show citizens where trouble spots are in terms of traffic, or to give them the history of a property they are considering renting. Crowdsourcing concerns is also an increasingly popular feature.
And while Simpson said developers in Charlottesville have had conversations about adding that sort of functionality down the line, they aren’t quite there yet. The priority now is to familiarize the community with the tech they’ve launched. The portal debuted in August, a tumultuous month for Charlottesville, which saw the city make national headlines after a right wing rally and counter protests turned deadly, resulting in three dead and dozens injured. This bleak news overshadowed the portal launch, but plans are underway to spread the word.
This includes an open data boot camp, so to speak, that the city is hosting on Sept. 22, where participants will spend a day learning to use the portal with guidance from an advisory group, while also sharing their thoughts on how to make the portal better.
“It’s been cool to get ideas from the community on other data sets to put on there, how to clean the data sets we already put on there and just to hear their feedback,” said Simpson.
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.