What Works Cities in Upstate NY

What Works Cities is an initiative of the Bloomberg Philanthropies focused on bringing open data and data-driven decision making to 100 mid-sized cities across the country.

Earlier this year, Buffalo joined the growing ranks of cities in the What Works Cities program. And just this week, Syracuse also became a What Works Cities program member. Coming on the heels of a successful civic data challenge in Central New York that partnered with the successful Hack Upstate biannual hackathon and AT&T, this bodes well for Upstate.

As more and more cities like Syracuse and Buffalo embrace open data and build partnerships with outside data users, they’ll learn to use data more effectively and foster the growth of innovative new solutions.

It will be interesting to watch as this new program ramps up in these two Upstate cities and new open data sets get released to the public.

And it would be terrific to see another Upstate city join the ranks of What Works Cities.

How Decentralized Zoning is Killing Upstate Cities

Last August, a study from the Century Foundation identified cities in Upstate New York as places with some of the highest concentrations of poverty for African American and Hispanic populations anywhere in the nation. The problem is particularly acute in the City of Syracuse which holds the  distinction of having the highest level of poverty concentration among African American and Hispanic populations of the one hundred largest metropolitan areas in the U.S.

This problem isn’t Syracuse’s alone – the study shows that Rochester and Buffalo also have serious problems with concentrated poverty. But the Salt City is an unfortunate standout in this report. In addition to have the highest concentrations of poverty among African Americans and Hispanics, when looking at concentrated poverty among non-Hispanic whites “…Detroit, Fresno, and Syracuse are the only metropolitan areas on all three lists.”

The Century Foundation’s findings echo those of an earlier study with a similar scope conducted by CNY Fair Housing, Inc. which found that the Syracuse area is “one of the worst scoring cities in the country when looking at equality of opportunity based on race and ethnicity.” Given what we know about how concentrated poverty affects the life outcomes for people who live in it, it’s hard to imagine a more serious drag on the growth and well being of our region than deliberately forcing people to live in places where they are surrounded by poverty and given them few options of getting out.

But that’s exactly what we do.

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An Evaluation of State Speeding Ticket Data

Getting a speeding ticket in the State of New York can be a traumatic – and expensive – experience.

Drivers convicted of speeding often face penalties and fines, and repeated or excessive offenses can result in the loss of a license. But in some places in New York State, drivers issued a speeding ticket may see a very different outcome than one would typically expect: a smaller fine, the avoidance of long-term penalties, and – oddly enough – additional money in local government coffers.

Last year, I wrote a post detailing some data science techniques that used a data set from the State of New York on traffic violations. This is an incredibly rich data set and it’s awesome that the state makes this available as open data. However, the issuance of traffic tickets only tells part of a larger story – since the release of this initial data set, the state has now released data on traffic ticket convictions. Comparing both of these data sets allows us to see the full picture of what happens when a traffic ticket is issued in the State of New York, from issuance all the way through to adjudication.

An examination of these data sets show that – in certain areas of the state – tickets issued for speeding are much more likely to be negotiated down to a lessor offense that allows drivers to avoid a penalty from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), and actually provides a backdoor benefit for local governments.

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Improving Public Health with Open Data

Municipal governments devote non-trivial resources conducting food safety inspections. These inspections require considerable bureaucratic infrastructure and highly trained staff, and play an essential part in protecting the public health.

And yet, despite this investment of time and resources many governments miss easy opportunities to extract additional value from this data that can further enhance efforts to protect public health and offer new insights into their communities. Here are some easy ways that local governments can get more value from food safety inspection results.

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Improving Services with Data

Moving services online can generate significant convenience benefits for citizens and cost benefits for governments.

Allowing citizens to submit data online can help ensure better data quality, and online payment means governments can access funds more quickly and more efficiently. Citizens get the convenience of 24/7 availability and the ability to pay with a credit card. Even for citizens that face challenges accessing the internet there can be benefits to allowing online or app-based options for services – this can give governments the ability to allocate more expensive resources (typically people) to better serve citizens that may need more intensive assistance.

But providing the option to submit a form or make a payment online doesn’t always guarantee that citizens will exercise the option. Poorly designed websites and clunky online forms can discourage citizens from using these options. Looking critically at online service options and using data to enhance them can be the key to getting more people to use them – allowing governments to realize the benefits of these more efficient online options.

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Simple Tricks to Get Better Data

One of the most common impediments governments face in making better use of their data – and releasing it to the public – is data quality.

Since much of the data that municipal governments maintain and use relates to a specific location, ensuring that address data is complete and accurate can make this data much easier to use, and much more valuable. There are some easy techniques that government can utilize to better ensure that address information – whether submitted by citizens themselves or collected in other ways – is as complete and accurate as possible.

In addition, once collected, taking steps to standardize address information can make it much easier to share within municipal government, as well as with other governments and external data users.

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State Data, Local Insights

Along with releasing open data themselves, one of the most important things Upstate governments can do to use data to enhance services and make better decisions is to leverage data that is availalbe from counties and the state.

The New York State open data portal is an invaluable resource that contains important data sets that Upstate governments can use at no cost to enhance their operations and make smarter decisions. This post will explore some of those data sets, and some of the things that can be achieved with data from the State of New York.

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State Data for Upstate Governments

Here is a brief list of open data sets that are available in the New York State open data portal that have [articular relevance for Upstate municipal governments.

Use these data sets (and others from the state portal to):

  • Identify unlicensed or unpermitted businesses or construction activity.
  • Identify business that are not in compliance with local zoning ordinances (e.g., areas that are not zoned for commercial activities).
  • Validate (or optimize) snow plowing routes, particularly during times of snow or weather related emergencies.
  • Generate macro-level indicators of business activity in an city or region.

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Why Publish Open Data?

Open data, especially open government data, is a tremendous resource that is as yet largely untapped. Many individuals and organisations collect a broad range of different types of data in order to perform their tasks. Government is particularly significant in this respect, both because of the quantity and centrality of the data it collects, but also because most of that government data is public data by law, and therefore could be made open and made available for others to use. Why is that of interest?

Open Data Handbook

Here are three reasons why publishing open data is important for local governments.

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