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.


Oakland has the 7th highest number of bike commuters nationally

20 Nov

I’ve become part of a profession where the U.S. Census Bureau’s data release dates are celebrated like mini-holidays. Each data product is a little wrapped gift, and size of the informational presents to be found within has little to do with how big the package is.  Mostly recently, my department reveled in the 2011 American Community Survey data. As I mentioned before, the ACS is the source of data on commute modes, among other things, so it was hardly surprising that the Bicycling and Pedestrian Facilities Program tore the wrapping off that package eagerly.

Take that, Tuscon!

And what a present it contained! According to the survey, bicycle commuting in Oakland is at an all-time high. Oakland now has the seventh highest rate of bicycling  of the 100 largest cities in the country. Take that, Tuscon! Five thousand Oaklanders commute by bicycle, and increase of over 250 percent since 2000. And remember, that’s only people for whom bicycling is the primary mode of transportation to work — it doesn’t include people who only bike in on Mondays, or bike to a bus stop or BART station, or drive to work but bike to shop.

After a flurry of emails, margin of error checks and hasty chart-making, we drafted a press release, which is available in its entirety here. Because what good is a present if you can’t show it off? It’s gratifying it see Oakland’s investment in bike lanes, boulevards, parking, racks, and other infrastructure pay off. Maybe if I can get a certain fellow MPP to tune up my bike, I can add a thousandth of a percent to next year’s mode share estimate.


Beautiful Moon Maps

6 Nov

It’s important to have aspirations. I’m still in the very first stages of learning things about GIS. So far, most of what I’ve done is make choropleth maps slightly better than an over-achieving 9th grader with  a big box of colored pencils. I’m excited to learn more though, and to that end I’ve started keeping a file of amazing maps. Some are obvious-in-retrospect simple, some are look-at-it-for-days complex and some, well,  some are just beautiful.

Check out this Geologic Map of the Near Side of the Moon:

Geologic Map of the Near Side of the Moon
by Don E. Wilhelms and John F. McCauley (1971)
(U.S. Geological Survey map I-703)

I mean, I have an affinity for moon maps*. My room is decorated with two pull-out maps from 1970’s National Geographics. But this one is worth ordering a print and then planning your room around it, at least to me. It’s not terribly informative without it’s legend (which  is another neat little piece of data visualization, all laid out in a table).  But it still manages to give a sense of the moon’s contours and elevations. But mostly, its just gorgeous.


H/T: Aubrey Drescher’s “Map Production” series

*It’s a long story, which starts with reading Veronica by Nicholas Christopher in a fit of quasi-megalomania. I highly recommend all his books. 

Bay Bridge Tour

16 Oct

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to take a tour of the Bay Bridge Seismic Safety projects. The tour was organized through the

I was pretty excited, as you can see.

local chapter of Women in Transportation, which regularly offers tours of infrastructure projects in the area, in addition to hosting some great happy hours.

The event began with a somewhat over-produced promotional video about how the bridge was going to be “one of the engineering marvels of the world,” as demonstrated with montages of construction work set to electric guitar riffs. Of course every major project wants you to know that it is something never-before-seen, challenging and amazing. But as the presentation progressed to a more technical video, I began to understand how unique the project really is.

Once completed, the self-anchored suspension span of the bridge will be the largest of its kind in the world. That design was selected by the public as the “signature element” of the bridge, which is more aesthetically in keeping with other structures on the Bay and quite a bit less boxy and prison-like than the current bridge. Self-anchored suspension bridges have one continuous loop of cable anchored to the roadway, supported by (in this case) a single tower. Our tour guide likened it to an arm in a sling, where your arm is the deck of the bridge, and your shoulder is the tower. The cable was installed one strand at a time, and all 137 strands are anchored individually.

The whole description of the project is riddled with superlatives. The tower is so massive that a crane had to be specially designed and fabricated to install it. The cable saddle is the world’s largest. Deck sections were moved into place with straddle carriers used by NASA to move shuttles. The whole affair will be one of the biggest public works projects in US history at $6.4 billion.

Given the scope of the project, I was glad to have had it explained before we got on the boat. It was difficult to see the details of features like the hinge pipe beams that connect bridge sections and allow the sections to move relative to each other in the case of a major earthquake.

The parallel decks of the Skyway section are on the left and the beginning of the self-anchored suspension span on the right. The existing Bay Bridge is in the background.

Being so up close and personal with the bridge did allow me to see some other parts I never would have noticed. Like the “cormorant condos” — nesting platforms for the double-crested cormorants that seem to really enjoy living under the existing bridge. Since the cormorants were recently an endangered species, CalTrans is doing everything it can to encourage them onto the nesting platforms, building nesting houses and putting up decoy cormorants to try and lure the real ones to the new structure. We also got to squint at the Bay Bridge Troll, who is now destined for a museum.

Overall, the event was a blast. I didn’t know very much about bridges going in, or this project in particular. Now at least I have a grasp on this bridge in particular.

Slime Mold Grows Network Just Like Tokyo Rail System | Wired Science |

3 Sep

When presented with oat flakes arranged in the pattern of Japanese cities around Tokyo, brainless, single-celled slime molds construct networks of nutrient-channeling tubes that are strikingly similar to the layout of the Japanese rail system, researchers from Japan and England report Jan. 22 in Science.

via Slime Mold Grows Network Just Like Tokyo Rail System | Wired Science |

Next time you need a snappy comeback to a transportation planner, just tell them “oh yeah? Mold could do your job!”*

*Not recommended for effective networking.

I’m a Guinness World Record holder!

19 Aug

I found out this week that I became a Guinness World Record holder by participating in Reddit’s 2011 Secret Santa match, which just earned the title of “Largest Online Secret Santa Game.”

Finally, something to put on my resume next to “TIME Person of the Year 2006.”

Census 2010 Summary File Summary: There are fewer

28 Jul

I’ve been doing a lot of work lately with various Census products. Mostly recently, I’ve been trying to pull together some data to visualize trends in  the number of bike commuters in Oakland.  This data is readily available in Summary File 3 (SF-3)  for the 2000 Census, and you can also find it in the American Community Survey (ACS) files.

My understanding was that the ACS files were kind of a stop-gap measure: they provided more current information than the decennial census, but were lass accurate. I thought for accuracy’s sake, I should use the SF-3 file information from both 2000 and 2010, in addition to the ACS data. Since I couldn’t find the SF-3 data for 2010 on American FactFinder, I figured it must just not be released yet, so I waited.

Today I discovered it doesn’t matter how long I wait — there won’t be an SF-3:

So, although many data users were expecting the full suite of Census indicators they had in the 2000 Summary File 3, the Census has changed its delivery method and methodology, and it is now distributing many of those through the ACS. The good news is that the ACS is updated annually, instead of decennially, and so estimates for household income, poverty and the like will be refreshed every year.

via About Census 2010 Summary File 1 Data | PolicyMap.

Thanks to the bloggers at PolicyMap for clearing up this mystery for me! I’d never heard of PolicyMap before, but as of today I have an account. Check out the lovely maps you can build in a matter of minutes:

Powered by, an online mapping tool and data warehouse.

More Bus Rapid Transit for Oakland

21 Jul

Earlier this week Oakland City Council unanimously approved plans for a Bus Rapid Transit line along International Boulevard. The buses will have a dedicated center lane, so service can be faster and more dependable. Plus more crosswalks, bulb-outs and bike lanes — what’s not to love?

Assessing the economic viability of a potential BRT line on International was part of the larger Complete Streets internship project that got me involved with transportation planning about a year ago now, so this news is particularly exciting.

Thinking about “A Geography Lesson for the Tea Party”

3 Jul

The Washington Monthly – The Magazine – A Geography Lesson for the Tea Party.

A friend of mine sent me this article a while back, but I am just getting around to reading it now. I really enjoy the way the author makes America sound like some kind of high fantasy land created by the likes of George R. R. Martin with different cultural bulwarks and aristocratic mechanitions. Like with those fantasy books though, my somewhat shaky geographic sense leaves me flipping to the map in the map in the front a little too often.

I dislike, however, the author’s insistence on citing election results (particularly presidential ones) as evidence of an ideological schism. Ever since reading Fiorina’s Culture War, I have this little voice in the back of my head asking if it is really more valid to see that red/blue map as polarization of the populace rather than apathy or polarization of the elite.

Either way, I’d like to read the author’s book, even if I would enjoy it more as a work of fiction.


What’s that little fancy ‘s’ that shows up when you talk about laws?

22 Jun

I’ve been seeing little § marks crop up in the things I read for years now. It wasn’t until today that I learned it is called a “section sign,” and can be created with a simple Windows Alt code: [Alt] + [2] [1]. I don’t have to copy and paste from whatever I’m reading any more!

Here’s a neat little blog about the origins of various typographic marks, including the section sign:

Typographic Marks Unknown | Retinart.