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What Kind of Open Records Data Do People Actually Want?

Thousands of files have been uploaded to public data portals by local and state government agencies. Access data from San Francisco may hint at what the public actually wants to see.

A screenshot of a line graph with multiple colored lines against a white background.
Ben Miller
During the lunch hour on the Tuesday after Memorial Day weekend, someone in San Francisco encountered an obstacle on the sidewalk that could have ruined their day.

A pile of human waste.

It was just outside SteppingStone, a nonprofit adult day health-care center, right across the street from the Yerba Buena Ice Skating Center on the 700 block of Folsom Street.

The person snapped a picture, opened up SF311, the city’s 311 app, and typed “Pile of human excrement,” tapping through to submit a request for the city to clean it up.

By 5:38 p.m. that day, the mess was removed. Case closed — in that instance. Open data from the SF311 web portal shows that case was only one of at least 80 different complaints about human waste that were submitted through the 311 portal during the 48-hour period. The public data set details whether the case is open or closed, the exact narrative of the complaint, and grants access to even the attached photo if one was submitted.
It’s an example of just how much information some cities have started releasing to their residents in an effort to increase transparency and accountability. As of July 2023, the city of San Francisco has released more than 1,100 active data files on their portal, DataSF.

As smaller cities and counties move toward expanding their open data access, they may be wondering how to prioritize public data access. Government Technology reviewed the access and use analytics of the San Francisco open data portal to gain some insight on what data residents are actually digging through.
The data that’s been viewed the most is a weekly update of the Department of Building Inspection Complaints list, which has been accessed through various sources more than 40 million times since its creation in 2016. It provides a description of the complaint, when warning letters were issued, possible hearing dates, current status of the case as well as other information.

Other data sets that have generated millions of clicks or downloads include the city’s Enterprise Addressing System, list of registered business locations and a daily updating data set of 311 cases.

When it comes to data sets that are downloaded, rather than viewed on a data portal page, through a filter or a map, there’s a pronounced interest in public health.

While the most popular download is for Temporary Street Closures in the Work Zone, data about the health inspections for local restaurants, permits for food trucks, and COVID-19 cases, tests and hospitalization data also received a large number of downloads.
Historically, interest in public data in San Francisco climbed the highest during the COVID-19 pandemic, with peaks in the fall of 2020 and late spring of 2021. However, public appetite for data doesn’t appear to be fading away.
Nikki Davidson is a data reporter for Government Technology. She’s covered government and technology news as a video, newspaper, magazine and digital journalist for media outlets across the country. She’s based in Monterey, Calif.