Cities Support Open-Data Programs to Improve the Lives of Citizens

Open-data cities make life better for everyone by sharing information that can lead to action.

After Henry “Hank” Garie joined Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation and Technology as geographic information officer, the city soon gave him a second hat to wear as chief data officer. Programmatic data rooted in “spatial awareness” provides a lot of power through open-data government to citizens who can view information as it relates to them and act upon it, Garie tells StateTech.

“One of the most valuable assets that government has is the data that we collect. The notion of open data just sheds light on it, so that citizens can see the value of collecting that data. They're seeing some real value when that data becomes open and transparent,” Garie says.

Citizens like to know what’s happening around them, and Philadelphia’s open-data program provides the means by which residents can view data by their address. Anyone with a computer in an open-data city can find information on isolated incidents and also chronic issues that impact the community. In her three years with the program, Kistine Carolan, Philadelphia’s open-data program manager, has seen open-data government incorporated in academic research, business activity and civic engagement. Nonprofits have conducted open-data program evaluations, and journalists cite it in their reporting, she adds.

Philadelphia’s CityGeo/CityData program, under CIO Mark Wheeler, aims to put data in the hands of citizens who can use it. At the website atlas.phila.gov, the public can research data related to business permits and inspections, real estate data, crimes, 311 service requests and other information near their address.

“It pulls in a lot of the geospatial open data that's available and really presents that in a way that’s easy to use. The average resident could just go in and type their address, or an address of interest, and find out the deeds information, any violation for that property, permitting and nearby events like 311 requests,” explains Carolan. City residents also can become more engaged through the platform by using it to identify their city council representative and gain access to voting information.

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Examples of Open-Data Government Spur Collaboration in Philadelphia

Carolan expressed specific excitement for how universities and other academic institutions have employed the city’s open-data sources. 

“For instance, Jefferson University had a professor who had students look at energy benchmarking data released by the Office of Sustainability, and the professor used that data to teach basic analytic skills, like how to create a pivot table, but also more of the critical thinking when you're testing your assumptions related to what would increase the energy consumption of a building,” Carolan says. 

The students discovered the data did not back up their assumptions. For example, they may have expected older buildings to consume more energy but the city’s open data demonstrated that new buildings with modern enhancements actually consumed more energy.

Meanwhile, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania has an initiative where students use open data to consider social impact policies, Carolan says. Some students are studying crime data to see if they can corelate data related to crime rates.

Garie says city agencies engage in a similar sort of analysis to understand urban trends. “It’s providing a real driving force for cross-organizational data sharing, and in some ways prompting us to integrate our data across these siloed systems and programs by making sure that we're making the data understandable and usable. It’s really fostering a lot more collaboration across our agencies,” he says.

MORE FROM STATETECH: Find out how data analysis opens doors for new outcomes at state and local agencies.

Agencies Pool Open-Data Sources Through Central Platform

Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation and Technology has made some investments in technology to support the open-data program. City agencies are building a centralized platform called DataBridge, Garie says — essentially, a central database that can take data from any system across the city, hold multiple data sets in a common environment, and normalize the data in an easy visual.

For example, a lot of city agencies collect address information but they don’t always format it the same way — street names may be abbreviated differently, or numbers may be missing. 

“We've pulled that information into DataBridge to make sure that it appears as part of a standardized, trusted, authoritative address information system. We share that data with our partner agencies. That's also the data that serves as the foundation for the open-data sets,” Garie says.

From DataBridge, OIT can publish information to Philadelphia’s online geospatial information system, Carolan says. The city is working to increase the amount of automated data sets. What are open-data sources? Simply put, those government agencies that collect any sort of information on their citizens can standardize that data and release it for their benefit.

“We'd like to automate pulling data from core systems in other departments, doing whatever data cleaning or enrichments, like geocoding, that needs to happen, and scheduling that to update automatically on OpenDataPhilly,” she adds. “So, the end users would have fresher data. It would save us tons of time, and free us up to work on new data releases or data visualization for other community engagement activities.”

To make everything happen, Philadelphia relies upon a combination of commercial, off-the-shelf solutions and open-data source development tools, in addition to cloud and on-premises services. “So, it’s really a mix and a hybrid approach to try to make sure that we’re using the best tools that we can within the financial constraints of city government,” Garie says.

MORE FROM STATETECH: Follow a discussion among officials as to how data integration can improve county social services.

How Smart Cities Can Use Open-Data Programs

The Sunlight Foundation is a nonprofit organization that works with cities on open-data policies. The foundation serves as a resource for the development of open-data policies for state and local government. Not long ago, the foundation worked with Milwaukee, Wis., to develop an open-data policy for the city, and as a first move, the city’s CIO published an inventory of data sets in the city’s possession.

Even that move was useful because it began to make information available to the public, says Noel Isama, senior policy analyst with the Open Cities Team at the Sunlight Foundation. Right away, someone used that inventory to look for snowmobile data.

Information is power,” Isama tells StateTech. “Not just power in a political sense, but in the sense that you have the power to use information to improve your circumstances or to improve your community.”

Open-data government then provides residents and stakeholders with the means to improve their communities and their circumstances. As government collects a lot of information, it can deploy that data to be useful in such a way.

“Sometimes because of often unnecessary barriers, that information lives behind walls and not in the hands of residents or those who need it,” Isama says.

Cities can start open-data programs without too much of a heavy lift, he says. One of the first things a city can do is to pass an ordinance to commit the city to an open-data policy. The city then can establish an appropriate governance structure and catalog data systems to discover the locations of data sets. As was the case in Milwaukee, that alone is a big first step, Isama says.

After an investment in staff, the city eventually should invest in an open-data portal, a platform that enables data visualization and the downloading of raw data. “It’s a legitimate investment and one that we think will pay off later,” Isama says.

Once such a platform is in use, the city will experience an increase in public records requests, and city staff will become better at fulfilling those requests — and will publish better information over time.

MORE FROM STATETECH: Learn how data integration can improve county social services.

Open-Data Government Is Critical to Grants and Business

Adam Roth, who is a member of the Board of Directors for the Data Foundation, often works with federal grants funding. There, open-data government is incredibly important to demonstrating the value of financial awards.

“Our government gives away about $700 billion annually in federal grant-making,” Roth tells StateTech. “This represents about 5 percent of the country's gross domestic product. Having open transparency around that level of activity is very important, and there are ways to enhance the value of those dollars for the recipients, the state and local governments, but also the people receiving the services, by having better data and better data standards and structures.”

To be most valuable, open-data sources must be primary, meaning direct from the data custodian. And it must be timely in that it is available when needed, Roth says. To employ open data to solve problems, it must be usable and transferable. Roth pointed to examples of open data. 

“You see in areas like agriculture, where people are taking data related to climate, or soil samples or shipping data, and processing data around food supplies to try to reduce the amount of food waste to increase the ability to feed more people,” Roth says.

In Ohio, the state maintains an “open checkbook,” he adds. Citizens can see spending data down to the local level on tax revenue and what happens with those funds.

“All of those things are incredibly important and valuable in terms of decision-making, and in terms of understanding how dollars are being spent, and then those things help governments make decisions, but they also help private industry make decisions if the data is truly accessible and transferrable,” Roth says.

He adds, “Open data helps citizens understand what’s happening in their communities. In theory, all that’s being done at the government level has the ability to be open. Now, not everything can be; certainly, there are things that you can't have, but the majority of data, being driven by public dollars, should be open.”

Open-Data Sources Improve Data Management in Philadelphia

In Philadelphia, the practices championed by the Sunlight Foundation and the Data Foundation are very much on the minds of city officials. The CityGeo/CityData program encourages its partner agencies to be effective custodians of data.

“We’re trying to encourage various agencies to make sure that they’re doing their part to manage their own data and clean it up as much as possible so that by the time it gets published into the DataBridge, and then ultimately as open data, we don’t have to clean it up too much,” Garie says.

By strengthening the city’s data stewardship, the city will release more and better data, Carolan says. “The data stewardship model is a big component,” she says. “Obviously, automation would free us up for more data releases.”

Philadelphia also will expand what’s available in its Atlas application. “We want to strategically pursue data that different city departments have that we could release as open data, and then also share out in that platform to make it even more useful to the people who are already using it, and the people who will use it in the future,” Carolan says.

Getty Images/ Alejandro Sanchez Fuentes
Aug 30 2019

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