On the lookout for ‘open data fatigue’ in NYC

I watched today’s news event by New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg and his colleagues about the city’s new “Digital Road Map” [PDF]. Impressive effort, including the livestream webcast.

But I thought the Twitter stream during the Mayor’s webcast was especially interesting. Seemed to me that there were just as many tweets about real-world problems (potholes, cops on the beat, subway service, etc) as there were about the technology announcements themselves. The technology is cool, and I agree it’s critically important for the city’s competitiveness, but it needs to be considered in the context of the substantive issues of improving city services, quality of life, engaging real people, maintaining a robust economy, etc.

I always worry when I see the city touting its technology efforts without also including local Community Boards, neighborhood groups, business advocates, urban planners, other elected officials, etc. who rely on access to public data so they can hold government accountable and do their jobs better. In my view, these groups need the data moreso than app developers. That is why open data efforts and policies are so important.

[Editorial update: I realized that in the preceding paragraph I omitted a critically important constituency regarding open data: the media.  I was thinking back on the many FOIL request I've made and various lawsuits I've been party to and hundreds of data requests I've made over the past two decades in an ongoing effort to pry loose public data sets from government agencies.  But I realized even that my longstanding involvement in data access efforts pales in comparison to the work done day in and out by reporters, editors, and journalists to not only further the open data cause, but just to do their jobs.

Media organizations absolutely rely on unfettered access to public data so they can shine a light onto government activities and educate us all about what our public officials are doing, perhaps especially when those officials don't want us to know.  So when we think about improving city (and state and federal) government by developing a "digital road map", the Foursquares and Tumblrs of the world are just distractions.  Provide unprecedented access to government data for the press -- and bloggers and tweeters -- and that will do more for better government than any number of Facebook pages, Foursquare check-ins, or officially-sanctioned NYC hackathons.]

But the city seems more focused on apps than on community. I understand the economic development appeal of fostering startups. But the open data movement long predated apps.  I highlighted this in my post last year (see the “Misplaced Priorities” section).

Apps are great (I use them constantly, and I’ve even developed one myself). And kudos to the city and its agencies for responding to app developers and making data more open so the developers can do great things with the data (things even the city might not do).

I just hope the latest announcements by the city will result in more real and lasting efforts to make data easier to access than the latest check-in craze. The Mayor already expressed some hesitation to making data accessible when a reporter asked him about CrashStat. CrashStat is a great example of my point — it wasn’t created to be an “app” per se; it’s an effort by a local nonprofit group to use public data to educate the public and hold government agencies more accountable about traffic injuries and fatalities. But the Mayor said he didn’t even know what CrashStat was, while making excuses about not making data available if it’s not in electronic format, or needs to be vetted, or is “sensitive”.  Blah blah blah – we’ve heard all that before and it undermines my confidence in the city’s pronouncements that more data will really be made open.  (I’d link to the city’s webcast at nyc.gov but it stops right when the Q&A begins.)

(In the livestream video, the Crashstat question comes at 27:00, and the Mayor acknowledges he doesn’t know what it is at 27:10. Thanks to Joly MacFie for the video link.)

So who knows, if the Mayor starts actually using Foursquare more and experiences ‘check-in fatigue‘, maybe he’ll eventually get ‘open data fatigue’ too. Let’s hope he stays as vigorous about public data access as he and his agencies say they will.

(photo via TechCrunch from IntangibleArts)

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7 Responses

  1. For a little background on CrashStat – I think TrafficStat and CrashStat are the same thing. For the past few years, the only way for the public to access this data was through a FOIL request, but recently the City Council passed legislation which requires it to be more accessible to the public. I don’t know if there is a specific deadline for implementing this, but I think the city is now pretty explicitly legally obligated to add this data to the NYC Datamine.

    More info: http://council.nyc.gov/html/releases/02_22_11_prestated_bikes.shtml

    • Thanks for the info, Phil. Looking forward to seeing the data on Datamine, and hopefully through the city’s new APIs as well.

      I assumed the #AskMike questions today about Crashstat referred to the data that Transportation Alternatives used in their CrashStat website, no? I guess the overall point is that it’s important data, and it should be open.

  2. Wow, this was really hard to find.

    It looks like the first reports on TrafficStat for bicycle crashes aren’t required to be public until June 1, 2012 and I’m not sure how granular the data requirement really is, might not be very much so. It looks like the other bill which is more broad and addresses pedestrians as well describes producing a report every five years (the first in 2015) and it’s not clear that will even be made directly public, but will be made available to the mayor and council. I’m sure Streetsblog or TA has some real analysis on this somewhere.

    It’d be nice if the city council would link to bills in their press releases, or at least mention the bill number. Anyway, here they are:

    http://legistar.council.nyc.gov/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=777882&GUID=376B73CB-2128-4E3B-A015-9DC7C2F56BCB&Options=ID|Text|

    http://legistar.council.nyc.gov/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=777873&GUID=8FA0E3F4-FA01-4206-9677-AB27E2F07FE9&Options=ID|Text

    http://legistar.council.nyc.gov/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=777871&GUID=FBD36CFB-B9F6-4693-A1BC-C39F3794C941&Options=ID|Text

  3. [...] Romalewski also listened in on the announcement and blogged his concerns about ‘open data fatigue“: I always worry when I see the city touting its technology efforts without also including [...]

  4. The full announcement video, including Q&A is at http://livestre.am/Ms9L

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