Open data is changing how New York City government works

Over the weekend, Amen Ra Mashariki — a Brooklyn native and head of the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MODA) — was evangelizing for open data. But he told an audience of civic tech enthusiasts that he hoped future open data evangelizers would be not data professionals, but regular New Yorkers who could demonstrate what open data does for them.

Is that future approaching? Open data is the push for cities to publish the copious information it collects — 311 calls, police data, for example — and put it online, accounting for privacy concerns, for the public’s consumption or perusal.

Five years ago this week, a city law launched a path toward getting all public city data available online by the end of 2018.

That effort has faced some bumps and complaints along the way from advocates fervently eager to get more numbers, but 1,600 data sets have been made available so far, which city officials say is more than double the number of sets released by runners up like Chicago and San Francisco.

The raw data quantifies many areas of urban life, from motor vehicle collisions to restaurant inspections to crime data. It includes somewhat whimsical sets, like the location of basketball courts, park restrooms and trees, alongside information that is candy for good government and transparency groups: the City Record, for example, repository of the city’s procurement and contracting decisions.

There’s lots of information, but Mashariki says MODA and the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications is working on ways to make it more user-friendly. Part of that is a new website that packages the information in less of an intimidating spreadsheet-design, plus outreach to community boards who can use the data to guide decisions about local policy.

Mashariki pointed to Manhattan’s Community Board Six as an example of a board using open data well.

CB6’s district manager, Jesus Perez, says his predecessor led the charge for using open data, but pointed to a map charting 311 complaints on the board’s website. He said data such as complaints about overflowing trash cans or the like could be useful in the board’s yearly report to the city outlining its needs.

Data like that, which can map out complaints and MTA alerts, for example, can make for interesting viewing for curious residents of any neighborhood or those looking to peer at a nearby one.

For now, however, the data might be most useful to the app-makers and tech experts who are most familiar with the material. It enables “journalists” and “data nerds” to provide information about important trends and patterns along with watchdog monitoring, says Justin Levinson, creator of an open data map of storefront vacancies.

In that way, tech-community analysis can still be beneficial for average civilians, says Ben Wellington, assistant professor at Pratt and the creator of iquantny.tumblr.com.

In an email, Wellington praised NYC for having “come a long way, and it’s done a generally good job.” But he noted the city still has far to go in putting up all possible data sets online, writing: “We are at mile 5 of a marathon.” He’s still waiting for sets like full street repaving history, and also more controversial ones such as 911 calls, which the city has not posted due to privacy and safety concerns.

With the help of open data, Wellington alone has caught a major city budget typo. His analysis of parking tickets found that police officers were misapplying the law for a particular type of violation, which was subsequently addressed. Crunching numbers on taxi tipping showed that two versions of payment software used in the vehicles factored the “automatic” tip differently, sometimes charging customers more or paying cabbies less depending on the inclusion of base fare, taxes and tolls.

With more data sets, as per Wellington — and more people looking at them, as per Mashariki — that could mean more mistakes and surprises found. Or at the very least, other truisms and lessons for city policy and living, such as the neighborhood that seems to experience the most flooding (Canarsie).

Plus those basketball courts. But no data for finding ones where you can play without waiting.

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