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'Analyze Boston' to Expand Data Sets, Enhance Data Literacy

Boston's chief data officer talks about the second iteration of city's open data platform.

Boston has been releasing open data through the city’s current portal for nearly five years, and doing so regularly, but with no long-term plan for making sure the site has the best possible information on it, let alone information in a format that’s easy for the average person to read.

That, however, is on the slow-road to changing. Last week, Boston released a beta version of a second iteration of its open data portal. Called Analyze Boston, everything from the name to the available tools to the quality of the data within has been cleaned up and redesigned to make data not only open, but also easy to use. 

As Boston’s chief data officer, Andrew Therriault is heavily involved in this push to make his city’s open data portal more user-friendly. And as users currently play with the now-live beta, Therriault took some time out to chat with Government Technology about why this is important and plans his team has for the future.

Analyze Boston, which is largely funded by a two-year grant for $475,000 from the Knight Foundation, is the product of lessons that Therriault and the rest of Boston’s Department of Innovation and Technology have learned. 

“With this new portal, we didn’t want to migrate things just because they were out there,” Therriault said. “We took a look at what was there and basically sorted things into things we thought were really good and wanted to maintain, and things we wanted to improve, but for the sake of getting them onto the new portal we migrated them and will be improving them with time. Then there were things we decided just weren’t worth bringing over.”

While being selective with data, the team is also building out new data sets. For example, the Boston Police Department Field Information and Observation reports are on the current portal. This data set details all interactions between police and residents. This info, however, is currently only available for 2011 through 2015. What the Department of Innovation and Technology wants to do now is make sure this data set is updated monthly, providing timely data that’s in the public interest.

The overarching theme of nearly every change, Therriault said, is to make Boston’s data easier for users to access and understand. Part of that is making sure the available data is what city residents are most likely to search for. To that end, the team is surveying city departments to find out what sets residents request most often. 

Officials don’t want the portal be a place where users just download data and leave. They want the portal to have other functionality, and so Therriault’s team is working on a data dictionary tool to display what things mean and how information should be interpreted. The team also wants the portal to have functionality that can directly benefit residents, such as a mechanism for entering one’s address or neighborhood in order to view data directly relevant to where they live. 

The beta testing for Analyze Boston will conclude this spring, but Therriault expects the work to continue for the foreseeable future. One specific upcoming initiative involves data literacy, or letting people know that public data is out there, how they can access it and how they can then read it. To do this, the Department of Innovation and Technology is collaborating with the Boston Public Library. 

“Librarians are really the front line of delivering knowledge to people in the public setting, and they have outreach into all sorts of communities,” Therriault said. “It’s a great opportunity to connect with people who otherwise wouldn’t think of themselves as people who have an interest in public data.”

The department is building out a training program for librarians to make them experts on public data and the portal. Soon, the residents of Boston will be able to walk into any library in the city and learn where they can access police reports, property assessments, restaurant health inspections or any of the other open information on the portal.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.