What does it really take to launch an open data portal for the first time?
In Louisiana's city of Baton Rouge and East Baton Rouge Parish, open data isn’t just a technical solution. Rather, it’s viewed as a catalyst for transparency and economic growth, and as a connection point between the city and its citizens.
It was on this note that Mayor-President Melvin L. “Kip” Holden launched the city-parish’s open data portal, Open Data BR on Jan. 30, to offer residents and businesses access to the jurisdiction’s raw data. As a first entry into the emerging ecosystem of open data, the mayor has championed the portal as a key component of his digital initiatives for 2015 — which also include expanding free public Wi-Fi and leveraging social media applications for public safety.
The first phase of the portal, which cost $6,000 to launch and six months to coordinate, includes 13 data sets and 10 different apps for data analysis. Topics touch upon such areas as finance, crime, fire, recreation and traffic. Next phases include cultivating support from the local civic tech community to develop additional data-based applications, and more data sets are slated to be added in the coming months.
“Our eventual goal is to create an open government at all levels by publishing each and every city-parish data point that may be of public interest,” Holden said via a press release.
To expand on his city-parish’s open data initiative, the mayor spoke to Government Technology to provide greater details and offer a glimpse into what it really takes to launch an open data portal for the first time.
Government Technology: What was the impetus for Open Data BR? How does it complement your vision to improve Baton Rouge's digital presence and services for residents?
Mayor-President Melvin L. “Kip” Holden: Open Data BR is a critical component of a larger vision for our city-parish to create a more efficient, transparent and digital government here in Baton Rouge. We firmly believe that technology can, and should, be a catalyst in the way government works and, in turn, how we serve the residents, businesses and stakeholders that rely upon us in a myriad of different ways.
Open Data BR came about as we began taking an introspective look at our internal operations: how we engaged with our “customers,” how other cities across the U.S. did the same, and how digital technologies could be utilized to improve one, more than one, or even all of these areas. A number of different cities across the country have launched similar open data initiatives, and we had the fortune of being able to learn from areas where those efforts excelled or could have been improved. We used those findings to adapt best practices and create a model for open data that works best for our purposes in Baton Rouge. In turn, we are hoping that the model we have developed will similarly serve as a resource for other cities that have yet to embrace the concept of open data, particularly here in the Southern United States where there are some exciting and tremendous opportunities for digital innovation in the government space.
We also view this system as a critical public engagement tool that complements our visions for creating a more “digital friendly city” and a stronger digital ecosystem here in Baton Rouge. While in its raw form, data may not mean much to a layman; but when visualized, mapped or incorporated in collaboration with other data or technologies, it can tell amazing stories and support the creation of unique solutions to everyday problems. We are strongly encouraging private industry and application developers in Baton Rouge to pull our data, connect to our APIs, create as many visualizations as they can think of and help us work to solve such problems – even ones we didn’t know existed.
Here in Baton Rouge, we’re just getting started – but there is plenty more to be done as we work to achieve that vision. Open Data BR will be the catalyst and foundation that helps us get there.
GT: How did the city decide its first data sets for the portal?
Holden: Most of the data sets for this first phase of the portal were selected based on the level of public demand for the type of data each includes. We measured this by considering the public records requests we received most often and the data that those requests involved, as well as taking an inventory of data that was most accessed or queried in other cities that have adopted similar open data movements. While we also wanted to ensure the data sets we selected for this first phase were going to be ones that we could easily access and load into the data portal, that wasn’t as strong a factor in selecting them.
Ultimately we knew we had to have some of these “high value” data sets the public has been asking for, or the effort might lose momentum before it ever gained it. Police incident data, fire incident data and traffic incident data are three data sets in particular that we knew from the get-go had to be a part of this first phase. The answer “no” wasn’t going to be an option, and I really credit our Department of Information Services team led by [Interim Director] Eric Romero with working hand-in-hand with our other departments as we inventoried our data and began working through the process of converting it into a format that would be accessible as part of such a portal. This was truly a team effort, and I have to commend all our staff who were involved in making Open Data BR happen. But as I’ve said, there is much, much more to come.
GT: Since its initial launch, what’s the typical usage like so far?
Holden: We saw more than 109,000 page views in just the first 12 days of the site being live, and public interest in the site appears to be growing each day. Overall, typical usage has really been a mixed bag, which is exciting to us. It means that Open Data BR is being utilized as a tool that has broad applications for a variety of stakeholders. Journalists have already used the data to create an updated, searchable database of all city-parish employees dating back to 2007, and we’ve received positive feedback from the software development community about the opportunity to engage in “civic hacking.” As more data sets are posted to the portal and the site gains more visibility among user groups, we expect the varied uses of it will increase as well.
GT: What are the most popular data sets so far and why do you think they’ve drawn such interest?
Holden: The data set that includes salary information for city-parish employees is a big draw because it is human nature to wonder about what people make, but I think that is more curiosity than anything else. Some have questioned the appropriateness of publishing this level of detail regarding salary information and, to questions such as those, I respond that the salaries public-sector employees earn is and always has been public record. Anyone can contact the city-parish and ask what a city-parish employee makes.
Again, creating efficiencies in government is a key goal of this effort. By proactively publishing this information, we’ve reduced the desk and research time associated with someone at the city-parish fielding such a public records request, and then working it through the proper human resource and legal channels to produce the information. That process alone can occupy an extraordinary amount of time. When we are dealing with the current budget environments that nearly every public-sector agency is experiencing, the decision to save someone’s time and create more efficiencies is a decision I will make every day of the week.
We’ve also seen a tremendous amount of interest in our police incident data, and we’ve received a number of requests to help citizens create maps or other visualizations that help tell stories, show trends, or illustrate crime patterns in their individual communities or neighborhoods. We believe this data set will be a key tool for law enforcement in identifying trends of criminal activity in real time, and we see a great deal of applications beyond just that of law enforcement as well. Ultimately every city strives to build a safe community. By using incident data, which includes thousands upon thousands of individual records, to identify the various crimes that take place both in real time and over time, we can begin to better understand how and why crimes occur, thus helping to prevent future crime issues in Baton Rouge.
GT: What is envisioned for the portal for the future? Does the city have a goal to add a certain number of data sets this year, or are there plans in the works to overlay some sort of analytics to the data?
Holden: From day one, we envisioned this portal as an all-encompassing, one-stop shop for city-parish data. To that end, I have been direct with our team overseeing this initiative and the departments, [saying that] … as stewards of the raw data, if the data is legal to publish, if it doesn’t violate the privacy of employees or citizens, and if it is in a format that can be converted to publish via this portal, then it needs to be included.
Keep in mind, many of our departments maintain data in different ways using their own internal processes and structures to house their data. This is something we are working to change moving forward, but right now it can make it more difficult and tedious at times to collect and maintain in the manner we need to in order to bring it into the Open Data BR portal. We know it may take some time, but we are very serious about our goal of opening up all the data that we can. We will also be reaching out to, and working with, other agencies in Baton Rouge not under our direct authority — such as the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office, the East Baton Rouge Assessor’s Office and other municipalities in East Baton Rouge Parish — to see how and to what extent we can incorporate their data into this platform.
As such, moving forward, we will work with our departments to continually identify data sets, convert or apply technology toward them to get them into the shape they need to be in, and move them into the portal as quickly as possible. That will be the approach until there is no more data left to uncover — at which point, I’m sure our team would like to take some well deserved time off.