Syracuse Launches an Open Data Portal

The City of Syracuse took another step in it’s open data evolution recently by launching an open data portal, joining the City of Albany in the small but growing fraternity of Upstate cities with open data portal.

The new open data portal represents months of work by the city’s Chief Data Officer and municipal innovation team. There are a number of very useful and valuable data sets available on the site, particularly the newly released parcel data file with details on all 40,000+ properties in the city.

The launch of this site underscores Syracuse’s commitment to transparency and engagement, but it also shows that open data is not just for big cities. The City of Buffalo is also slated to launch an open data portal soon. Here’s hoping not only that we see more cities adopting open data, but that Upstate cities begin sharing new ideas and strategies for putting this data to work.

Driving Innovation Beyond The Big City

In late 2014, I had a chance to present on the main stage at the annual Code for America Summit in San Francisco. To the surprise of very few people, I was there to talk about cities and data.

Earlier that year, I had finished up my term as the first Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia, one of the largest cities in the country. But my focus that day was not on big cities like Philadelphia — but rather on smaller cities that had not yet started down the road of leveraging data to spur innovation and inform better policy decisions.

In 2014, the delta between what large cities were doing with data and what small and mid-sized cities were doing was pretty stark.

Large cities had embraced open data almost universally and had put in place the policy or technology infrastructure necessary to implement open data or data analytics programs. Nineteen of the top 25 most populous cities had an open data portal or a data policy in place at the time. More than 70% of cities with populations over 500,000 had started down the road to leveraging data to make better decisions or change the way they interacted with residents.

In contrast, relatively few smaller cities had begun that work. Of the 256 incorporated places in the U.S. with populations between 100,000 and 500,000 (based on U.S. Census data), only 39 had adopted a data policy or had implemented an open data portal at that time.

But in the time since I gave that talk, much has changed — largely through the work being done as part of the What Works Cities initiative, which was launched by Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2015 to work with mid-sized cities between 100,000 and 1 million in population, and is now partnering with over 75 cities across the country.

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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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