Open to all
project managers leading open data initiatives must build a coalition to give city residents access to important information
Open data projects hold lots of promise in cities around the world—for both residents and the governments that serve them. By making crime statistics or real-time train or bus information publicly accessible, they can boost citizen engagement and quality of life.
A map from London's Datastore website
A project in Cairo, Egypt, for example, aims to leverage electricity usage data to eradicate power outages. An open-source portal in San Francisco, California, USA helps citizens handle emergency situations before first responders can arrive.
But before such benefits can be delivered, open data project leaders must navigate tricky terrain often containing multiple government agencies, private companies and security fears.
Cities can't do these projects on their own, says Andrew Collinge, assistant director, the Greater London Authority (GLA), London, England. “It's all about building coalitions,” he says. “City data projects are as much about leadership as managing technical projects.”
The GLA sponsors London's Datastore website, which provides residents over 500 datasets detailing everything from the city's economy and demography to the square kilometers of tree coverage in each neighborhood. A one-year, £1.5 million Datastore project slated for completion in May 2016 will create a predictive city modeling platform allowing users to alter factors such as the projected population or housing stock, shedding light on the connections among them.
The project requires partnerships with small businesses that have data analytics expertise, as well as with other stakeholders. Mr. Collinge says he builds a coalition in part by holding community meetings and publishing blog posts that showcase project benefits. His team also constantly communicates with other government agencies and departments, pointing to successful projects—such as the dataset that provides Londoners with real-time transport information—to convey the benefits of releasing data.
The challenge for project teams is to provide datasets that are interesting and useful to the public “without compromising anyone's privacy or safety.”
—Tom Schenk, Department of Innovation and Technology, City of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA
In Chicago, Illinois, USA, the city government's Data Portal program engages the biggest stakeholder of all: the general public. The program's staff attends community meetings to gather suggestions from residents for new dataset projects.
“We reach out to see what they might be interested in,” says Tom Schenk, chief data officer, the Department of Innovation and Technology, City of Chicago. The Data Portal offers nearly 600 datasets, including a list of every reported crime in the city since 2001 and another of the city's 32,000 employees and their salaries (the portal's most popular dataset). The team recently launched a dataset detailing the summer conditions of the adjacent Lake Michigan, such as water temperature and wave heights.
Public-private collaboration is proving equally vital to the Civic Tech and Data Collaborative, a two-year, US$450,000 project launched in St. Louis, Missouri, USA in May 2015. “The collaborative intends to harness technology to help people better navigate the municipal court system in St. Louis,” says Tara Pham, project manager, Civic Tech and Data Collaborative. As it solicits public input via in-person surveys, social media and other channels, the project team will identify and ultimately implement a suite of open-source tools, such as an online guide to the court system.
Knowing the Limits
While open data projects promise access to an abundance of information, they also carry the risk of impinging upon residents’ privacy. “About 80 percent of a city's data has some kind of personal aspect to it,” Mr. Collinge says.
The challenge for project teams is to provide datasets that are interesting and useful to the public “without compromising anyone's privacy or safety,” Mr. Schenk says. On a dataset project that details buildings’ energy usage, the Data Portal team made sure that specific homes’ energy use and energy bills weren't published. But it kept information detailed enough to be useful to the public and to researchers.
Open data teams also contend with the challenge of how to deploy finite resources for a potentially endless stream of worthwhile data projects. “This is a very serious problem for cities: how to avoid projects that pose long-term liability to staff,” Mr. Schenk says.
To avoid overtaxing its programmers with each new dataset project, the Data Portal team launched a one-year project to create a framework that makes it easier to upload data to the portal. Rather than requiring high-level programmers to write code for each new dataset, a number of staff members, including interns, can be trained to do it.
“By reducing the technical work needed to upload the data, we can spend more time on focusing and prioritizing worthwhile datasets,” says Mr. Schenk. —Novid Parsi
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