NYC generates an enormous amount of data each year, and for the most part, it stays behind closed doors. But thanks to the Open Data movement, signed into law by Bloomberg in 2012 and championed over the last several years by Borough President Gale Brewer, along with other council members, we now get to see a small slice of what the city knows. And that slice is growing.
There have been some detractors along the way; a senior attorney for the NYPD said in 2012 during a council hearing that releasing NYPD data in csv format was a problem because they were “concerned with the integrity of the data itself” and because “data could be manipulated by people who want ‘to make a point’ of some sort”. But our democracy is built on the idea of free speech; we let all the information out and then let reason lead the way.
In some ways, Open Data adds another check and balance into government: its citizens. I’ve watched the perfect example of this check work itself out over the past month. You may have caught my post that used parking ticket data to identify the fire hydrant in New York City that was generating the most income for the city in the form of fines: $33,000 a year. And on the next block, the second most profitable hydrant was generating $24,000 a year. That’s two consecutive blocks with hydrants generating over $55,000 a year. But there was a problem. In my post, I laid out why these two parking spots were extremely confusing and basically seemed like a trap; there was a wide “curb extension” between the street and the hydrant, making it appear like the hydrant was not by the street. Additionally, the DOT had painted parking spots right where you would be fined if you parked.
Once the data was out there, the hydrant took on a life of its own. First, it raised to the top of the nyc sub-reddit. That is basically one way that the internet voted that this is in-fact “interesting”. And that is how things go from small to big. From there, it travelled to the New York Observer, which was able to get a comment from the DOT. After that, it appeared in the New York Post, the post was republished in Gothamist and finally it even went global in the Daily Mail.
I guess the pressure was on the DOT at this point, as each media source reached out for comment, but what struck me was their response to the Observer:
"While DOT has not received any complaints about this location, we will review the roadway markings and make any appropriate alterations"
Why does someone have to complain in order for the DOT to see problems like this? In fact, the DOT just redesigned every parking sign in New York because some of the old ones were considered confusing. But if this hydrant was news to them, it implies that they did not utilize the very strongest source of measuring confusion on our streets: NYC parking tickets.
Before Open Data:
After Open Data:
So what are we to do? How do we make government more data driven? Well that’s exactly where Open Data comes in. Agencies are pulled in many directions, and this is an example where, for whatever reason, the data was not analyzed. By opening up data to its citizens, the NYC government is getting free additional resources to improve services.
The good news in all of this is that the DOT acted on this data point incredibly quickly once they were aware of it. Within weeks, the two parking spots were repainted (see above) to make it clear that they were in fact illegal. And that bit of paint will save New Yorkers over $55,000 a year. This may be a small victory for the Open Data movement, but it’s an important one. And it is the proof that anyone can use Open Data, the internet and great sites like reddit to improve our neighborhoods and our great city, one small discovery at a time.Tweet
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