Archive | February, 2013

Opening Oakland

18 Feb

I haven’t been writing here as often because I’ve been helping to write and edit articles at the OaklandWiki. I love the wiki format because it provides an outlet for my tendency to fight through writer’s block by making my text dense with citations and references to other works. OaklandWiki is just one of the awesome projects that are coming out of the OpenOakland Code for America brigade.  It’s a really interesting time to be interested in open data and living in Oakland.

The City of Oakland just launched an open data platform, The new website will be the central repository of the City of Oakland’s public data. “Open data platform” can feel like an awfully fancy term for what looks like a bunch of simple spreadsheets liberated from the network drives of city employees. There are lists of foreclosed properties and public art installations. There is tabular data that seems like a section of the Yellow Pages, like the address and telephone numbers for all the Head Start locations in the city.

Most of the real magic happens when information is turned into charts and maps in a unique way or paired with each other to create a new insight.* Oaklanders can view and download information, finding out which City Council district they live in or which police beat their house is on. The website also makes it easy for armchair policy geeks to create, share and discuss visualizations of the data, like by pairing the map of Head Start locations to Census data showing what neighborhoods have a lot of young children to see where another location might be needed.  Crime statistics seem to be the most viewed data sets so far, which is a) kind of a shame, since Oakland is so much more than crime and b) a good example of how far Oakland has come about Open Data, given the City’s negative reaction to the creation of Oakland Crime Spotting in 2007.

Folks can also use the site’s API to build software applications. In Boston, one such application is the Adopt a Fire Hydrant, a map-based web app that lets people take responsibility for shoveling snow out from around a fire hydrant in their neighborhood. Oakland is adapting that code for an Adopt a Drain program. In San Francisco, data from the Public Works Department was parlayed into an app that lets you identify the species of tree planted in any boulevard. How cool would that be for Oakland, a city full of places named for street trees?

This push towards making data publicly available is also helping the City think about how it collects and stores data internally. For example, want access to the pedestrian counts that are collected during traffic studies? Too bad. There’s no consistent archival method for them, so no one person or department can release them, even if they want to. I think this is a good little object lesson about how governments aren’t nearly as obstructionist as folks tend to think. It isn’t that some public employee is sitting on the data you want and thumbing their nose at you, it’s that the people who collect data don’t necessarily think it will have a use beyond the immediate and internal, and thus don’t keep it around. The more the public can communicate what data it wants, the more the government can make sure its collected in a consistent, centralized way to make it releasable.

That conversation about what datasets should be added next has certainly begun. Data.Oaklandnet allows users to request datasets directly, and I was surprised to see that the only thing requested so far is something I myself have often wished for — the records from ShotSpotter, the “acoustic surveillance system” that alerts Oakland police to gunfire in certain neighborhoods. My friends and I have a long-running dream of being able to access a website that will answer the question “What’s That Noise in Oakland?” Is it gunfire? Fireworks? Back-firing cars? And maybe if that requester gets access to a ShotSpotter API, that website will become a reality.

I think that’s the best part the movement towards opening up government data. The City doesn’t have to try to anticipate all the public’s desires and spend time producing every possible fancy map. Instead, it can give people the resources to do it themselves. rather than pitting “innovation” against things like street paving on the to-do list of governments, coming up with new ideas and insights becomes  a joyful and collaborative process for all kinds of engaged citizens, small businesses and recreational data visualizers.

* I’ve also been reading The Ghost Map, the story of  Dr. John Snow’s dot map of cholera cases and water pumps during the London epidemic of 1854. It does an excellent job of filling me with awe for the power of open data, mapping and good old fashioned detective work.