Data for Good

How Two Cities Are Enhancing Open Data's Reach

As governments move to share more troves of digital data, civic innovators in Chicago and New York are working to ensure public use fulfills open data’s promise.

November 21, 2016

This post was produced in partnership with News Deeply.

Imagine a city where a parents’ committee can parse speeding ticket data with crime statistics, to map the safest routes for students to bike to school. Consider a neighborhood where a local business owner can find out pedestrian density patterns to identify the most productive hours to staff her business – increasing her shop’s efficiency and ability to grow.

Across the United States, community groups and individuals are creating solutions just like these, powered by open data.

For nearly a decade, the guiding principle of the open data movement – that government agencies should freely share comprehensive and timely data with the public – has inspired the creation of open data policies and portals in 40 states and more than 48 cities and counties nationwide. At the national level,, the U.S.’s national open data portal launched in 2009, has grown from hosting 47 datasets to more than 192,000 today.

Datasets like these provide public access to a vast array of hyper-local information, ranging from near-real-time crime reports and air quality readings, to traffic patterns and school test performance. With training and purpose-built tools, people can use this data to develop civic technology that enhances their access to high-quality education, transportation and jobs.

“Now you’re talking about something really different – and you’re changing lives,” said Amen Ra Mashariki, chief analytics officer at the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics in New York City.

The Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth met with civic leaders in New York and Chicago in October to discuss how open data can help cities engage with residents to build shared prosperity. Hosted in partnership with the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University and DataKind, the two events are part of the Center’s multi-city U.S. listening tour, On the Frontlines of Inclusive Growth.

“We are at a historic low in terms of public trust in institutions,” said Alaina Harkness, a Brookings Institution fellow in Chicago who focuses on city governance innovation. “The open data movement has been really good at increasing transparency and trust in government and institutions at a time when that’s critical.”

Chicago and New York City are two cities working hard to fulfill the promise of open data. New York passed a groundbreaking local law in 2012 that mandates every city agency must publish all of its public digital data by 2018. So far, the city has uploaded more than 1,500 datasets to its Open Data Portal, which has received more than five million hits since it was launched in July 2015. Chicago issued a similar mandate in 2012; through initiatives like the Smart Chicago Collaborative, which develops and tests tools built on open data, it has become a national hub for civic technology. Panelists at the events in both cities explained that when it comes to enhancing open data’s impact, public engagement is essential.

“Open data is not a noun; it’s a verb,” Mashariki said. “It’s the process you go through of releasing it and getting it to everyone.”

As New York City works towards sharing its entire trove of public municipal data, the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MODA) is prioritizing the training of community members. This is key to harnessing one of the most exciting benefits of open data: the ability of ordinary people to use data to create solutions for the problems their communities face. MODA conducted a study with Columbia University to learn about the challenges non-technologists – for example, members of a homeless advocacy group – experience when trying to use open data. They discovered that finding and analyzing data can be confusing for novices on many interfaces, but potential users recognize the data’s enormous potential to advance community development.

To help bridge this gap, MODA conducted train-the-trainer outreach with community boards in the city, teaching members how to use the portal as a technical tool. “The concept is that those people will then engage their larger group of neighbors in their community to talk about the values of open data,” said Mashariki.


Alaina Harkness (second from left), MarySue Barrett (second from right) and Jack Porway (far right) participate in a discussion on civic tech innovation in Chicago on October 26.

Getting more people engaged in open data requires making it easy to use, civic leaders agree. “I don’t want to wake up in the morning and see 0s and 1s and need to decipher them,” said Harkness. Tools like Chicago’s Open Grid and TOD Calculator are lowering the barrier to entry by serving as “translators” for data.

The Metropolitan Planning Council, an independent civic group in Chicago, built the Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) Calculator, an interactive data visualization tool that helps community stakeholders examine how proposed policies, transport routes and construction could foster or inhibit inclusive growth in their neighborhoods.

“It’s meant to be democratizing,” said Council president MarySue Barrett. “Whether you’re an alderman, developer or community organization, if you’re looking at a vacant lot you’re picturing – or fearing – what can happen.” With the calculator, users develop data-informed advocacy that can map the path for things like better-placed local shops and faster bus routes to employment hubs.

“Honestly, [as data scientists] most of our work is around communication: it’s about bringing constituents around the table,” said Jake Porway, founder and executive director of DataKind, which puts data scientists to work pro bono on economic and social justice projects, and partners with the Mastercard Center on its data philanthropy initiatives. “Human-centered design is really how all this stuff works well.”

“We’ve done a pretty good job of opening data, but I would argue that it has become a bunch of spreadsheets on the web,” said Brett Goldstein, a senior fellow in urban science at the University of Chicago who previously served as Chicago’s first chief data officer. “How do can we get people who are constituents to be able to access the data? That’s when you start to see projects like Open Grid.”

Launched in January 2016 by Chicago’s Department of Innovation and Technology, OpenGrid is an open-source web application with familiar search features that allow users to find and filter information about their neighborhoods and the city as a whole, exploring the data on a map-style interface. It has been so well received, the city also created a version that other cities can replicate. Scaling civic technology development like this will allow smaller towns that may lack funds or human capital to develop their own OpenGrid-style resources, which residents will be able to use to improve their communities across the United States.

“When you think about your inclusive city, there is no magic bullet,” said Goldstein. “But as we have more data, we can make smarter-tailored decisions that reach all different constituencies.”

Featured Photo Credit: Getty Images