New York City Council members, transparency advocates and other advocacy groups on Wednesday had both praise and criticism for the implementation of the city's open data law, as they called for better agency compliance with the law's requirements, more user-friendly platforms and better responsiveness to public demands, as the city moves forward with its mayoral transition.
The city emphasizes that it has released more data than any other U.S. city and that it has gone beyond what is required by the law. But while activists like Code for America's Noel Hidalgo praised the law for helping to make New York City a center for "civic hacking," civic hackers and other advocates said they are frustrated with the available data.
The open data law, passed last year, required city agencies to within a year make all datasets already released publicly online available through the open data portal in machine-readable format, and provide reasons for any such datasets that that they cannot make available. The law also required the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications to craft a compliance plan identifying which datasets agencies planned to release by 2018, which was released in September.
Kaehny urged the city to draw on 311 requests, FOIL requests and website data to inform what is given priority for release to create "an open information ecosystem...The ability to offload requests from 311 and from city websites, that's what this all about." He suggested strengthening the law with a "One Strike and You're In" measure, under which data released as part of FOIL requests would automatically become part of the portal.
"[Agencies] want control of the release of data," Kaehny said. "We don't have a lot of leverage, we can't sue with no public right of action, so public complaints are important." He also said it was key that "agencies need to understand this law helps them, it reduces their workload." He emphasized that City Council members and staff should regularly use and cite the open data law in committee hearings on all subjects. "Part of this law is empowering the legislative branch with information." In addition to educating new members of the City Council, he suggested that borough presidents should spread awareness of the law to district managers and community board members. Rachel Fauss, research and policy manager at Citizens Union, added that the City Council should lead by example by making its own data on expenditure reports and legislation available, and that there should be a list of agencies subject to the open data law.
Noel Hidalgo, founder and program manager of New York City's Code for America brigade betaNYC, also a member of the Transparency Group, testified that the open data law had helped make New York City "one of the premier cities for civic hacking." The civic hacking community has grown from originally around 110 to 1,300 people working on projects on a weekly basis, he said. The group had successfully advocated to shift the focus of the BigApps competition to building communities and companies, he noted, while the release of PLUTO and ACRIS had helped fuel "an explosive demand" to work with property data at the weekly meetings. He also noted that property search company Streeteasy, one of the group's hacknight partners, was recently acquired for $50 million dollars.
But he also outlined several frustrations of the hacker community, especially with regard to NYPD and Citibike traffic and safety data. Often that data is only available with poor data formatting, meaning it has to be scraped, hurting useability and accuracy, he said. Other data is locked in PDFs or spreadsheets, he added. "We want that data disaggregated and frequently updated," he said. At another hearing the NYPD had claimed that civic hackers could already work with the data, he said. "We are the hackers and we are frustrated with the data," Hidalgo said. He suggested that the scope of the law should be expanded to cover items such as property sales and court records, the implementation of an error reporting policy to make it easier to report inconsistencies and maintain quality control, and the embrace of common data standards such as the one pioneered for restaurant health inspection scores.
In other testimony, Ellen McDermott, co-director of OpenPlans, another member of the working group, highlighted how the non-profit company had been using open data to work with local community boards to create maps showing requests for capital spending, assisting with the Participatory Budgeting program, and working with a Brooklyn community to gather safety data as a basis for conversations with the local police precinct. She urged the city to improve the interface of the platform through a "useability clinic" and explore ways for the agencies to use community-edited data, such as through community mapping of street trees and by building on a collaboration between DOITT and OpenStreetMap.
Nathan Storey, product manager for PediaCities, encouraged the city to work on stronger partnerships between data consumers and producers, such as by expanding the volunteer Code Corps program beyond disaster relief and embedding civic technologists in community boards, among City Council staff and agency staff. He also suggested a focus on using data to track early indicators for risks of foreclosure, gentrification, disinvestment and climate vulnerability.
Matt Bishop, CEO of iGiveMore.org, described how APIs could help streamline the application process for government programs, for example with a button during the tax filing process showing users what programs they could qualify for, and also emphasized the importance of APIs to allow for collaboration and common authentication between different levels of government.
Many testifying outside the open government and technology space focused on the portal's usability problems. Juan Martinez, general counsel at Transportation Alternatives, noted that earlier legislation in 2011 required the NYPD to publish detailed data on traffic crashes and summonses. But he said the promise of the bill had been frustrated because of how the data was published. "If it weren't for the civic hackers, we wouldn't see any benefit to the legislation that [Council member Lappin] passed," he said. They had been able to extract some data, but the result is not as clean and useable as it could be, and requires a time- and labor-intensive process, he said. Often City Council staff and others "end up coming to us as opposed to being able to find it themselves," he said.
"It's not as if we need the NYPD to do more work. Actually we're asking them to do less work," he said. "They add formatting in a way that introduces errors and can't load on computers ... What we're hoping for is more legislation to convince the NYPD to put less effort into it and make it something we can use." He noted the potential of receiving e-mail reports on traffic hotspots and for City Council members and Community Board staff to more easily able to explain the need for speed-bumps and focus on the most important intersections. OpenPlans and Transportation Alternatives planned to hold an event Thursday highlighting how maps and interactive tools could help reduce street fatalities.
Sara LaPlante, data analyst for the NYCLU, criticized the NYPD for only deeming six data sources as eligible for release, including ones that were image and text heavy reports. "Submitting entire reports misses the mark of the law," she said. "These reports come pre-packaged from a PR standpoint and require researches to deconstruct narratives. Even if the reports were released as raw data, the list is far from exhaustive." She emphasized how data on the Stop, Question and Frisk policy, which is published but not available as data on the portal, has informed the debate on the issue.
Lourdes Cintron, founder of the Citywide Mental Health Project, criticized in her testimony that a search of the database did not bring up any data on mental health issues. "The search for either 'mental health' or 'department of health and mental hygiene' gives you, both of them, 'NYC’s famous Baby names' and 'food vendors without permit'," she said. "Also, a search on '311' shows not a single call requesting information about mental health services or a single incident related to it. Almost all 311 reports since 2010 are related to vermin and rats. A researcher could easily conclude that rat infestation has no impact in the city’s mental health. This could matter for policy and budget purposes."
She also strongly criticized the useability of the platform. "The website is confusing and, in my view, (as it is now) useless for the purpose stated in the law ... It requires high levels of computer and research skills to figure out which [format] to select, and once selected, the format is still confusing. I could not use it, even though I do have computer skills," she said. "As it is now, most of the members in my group do not have the skills to navigate this website’s graphical user interfaces if they needed to access the information supposedly available. This website was designed for researchers, not for the general public."
"What I loved was the really specific suggestions, not pie in the sky," Brewer said after the hearing. "I think what's important for the next administration is to work with the agencies to really get them to put data in open format on the portal, and then it's up to all of us to work with the communities to help them understand and make it useable," she added, noting that Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio used to be a member of the technology committee.
De Blasio on Wednesday announced the 60 members of his transition team to help him shape the make-up of his administration. The members include William Floyd, head of external affairs for Google, Ken Lerer, co-founder of the Huffington Post and managing director of Lerer Ventures, Tim Armstrong, chairman and CEO of AOL, Kevin Ryan, chairman and founder of Gilt and Jukay Hsu, founder of the Coalition for Queens.
An earlier City Council hearing last week highlighted the importance of open data for the ability to track the expenditure of funds connected with the recovery from Superstorm Sandy. The hearing concerned legislation that would require the city to establish a database to track such funds, similar to one that tracked the dissemination of stimulus funds. City Council members and advocates emphasized that the database could help prevent waste and wage theft that often especially affects immigrant workers.
Thaddeus Hackworth, general counsel for the NYC Mayor's Office of Housing Recovery Operations, said the city was working on establishing a database, possibly to be released before Thanksgiving. But he warned that the bill as written brought up some privacy concerns and he said it might not be feasible to provided detailed data on job creation and workers' borough of residence since employers had no contractual obligation to provide that data. City Council members countered that the city could force contractors to provide that information and that it would be easily accessible through their payroll systems.
Josh Kellerman, an analyst for the Alliance for a Greater New York, emphasized in his testimony that the database should interface with the Open Data portal and provide downloadable and useable data, and that it was important for it not to be an "island of information."
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