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Pittsburgh to Take Holistic, Regional, Granular Approach to Open Data

With a $1.8 million open data grant, the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County plan to harness data that informs business processes and decision-making on a daily basis.

With an 18-month, $1.8 million grant in hand, Pittsburgh is taking a different approach to data.

Awarded mid-December by the Richard King Mellon Foundation, the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County will use the grant to build a data center, launch a community-driven open data portal, hire new staff members, and support a 2015 Code for America engagement. Project Leader and Pittsburgh Analytics and Strategy Manager Laura Meixell says the city's role is not data arbiter, but that of a data matchmaker, as the region takes a progressive posture on open data.

The approach is different for a few reasons, Meixell said, the first being that officials are taking a regional approach to open data.

“We have some really ridiculous issues with municipal fragmentation here,” Meixell said. “We have 131 municipalities just in the county. There are a lot of public policy issues – everything from land banking to thinking about some of our sewer and water quality stuff that absolutely has to be done at an inter-municipal level, and we really need an institution that can help support the information infrastructure to do some of that planning.”

The city and county have partnered with the University of Pittsburgh (UoP), which will host the online portal, and Carnegie Mellon University.

“The idea is to make that portal flexible and inclusive, so that as we get bigger, we can host data sets coming from some of the other municipalities in our region, coming from neighborhood groups that have data that they want to share, coming from some of our inter-municipal government organizations," said Meixell. "And once we are able to provide this one-stop shop for information availability in our region, we are excited to offer additional support and programming through the regional data center at UoP."

Forming partnerships with community groups will be integral to the county’s open data strategy, because officials intend to change the way that people use open data, Meixell said. Traditionally open data has been used to create high-level indicators that inform decisions, like using a rising-crime data point to support increased police funding. Top-level indicators have their place, she said, but Pittsburgh wants to move toward granular, location-based data that will allow communities to join today’s popular narrative of intelligent data use: harnessing data that informs business processes and decision-making on a daily basis.

Whether it’s data pertaining to crime, city infrastructure, building permits or tax delinquency, the city and county will work with neighborhood groups to help guide their decisions with data – and that will translate to a more efficient use of resources, said Meixell.

“I think there’s a lot of work to be done on this in the open data world,” she said. “I’ve been calling it data matchmaking, working ‘with,’ not ‘for ’ – working with these community groups to figure out what their current processes are and how evidence-based management and how data can really help the things they are working on in a day-to-day way. I hope that the regional data center can fill that role, and I think we’re in a great position to do so.”

The regional data center will start small – releasing just a few data sets in February, and building community ties and developing resources in the coming years, Meixell said. “Once we get those up, we want to start with the outreach and start trying to create these networks of people in all these different municipalities and offering them access to the data portal and try to bring them in,” she added. 

The regional concept was borrowed from Helsinki, Finland, Meixell said, and they want to follow in Chicago’s footsteps when it comes to application development.

“The way that they do rapid deployment of smaller applications and been able to do some interesting analytics that start with performance measures,” she said. “We feel that as we’re starting to have all this data in one place, the stuff we can do with it just grows exponentially.”

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.