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NYC data, wide open

Today the NYC Mayor’s Office launched two related initiatives, a new “DataMine” website and the NYC BigApps competition.  I blogged about both items last month, and though I was skeptical then, I’m quite impressed now.

The DataMine site is big.  It lists 103 “raw” data sets (basically lists, spreadsheets, RSS feeds, that sort of thing) and 91 “geographic” data sets (data in GIS format).  There’s some overlap, and the official news release says the city is release “more than 170 city datasets.”  (See also a blog post at Flowing Data and a New York Times item in the “Bits” blog.)

The list includes everything from city bike rack locations to water fountains in parks to almost all of the city’s basemap GIS data.  Some of these GIS files were already available for free download under the City Planning Department’s “Bytes of the Big Apple” program and DoITT’s GIS Downloads site, but now they’re all in one place with everything else.

Well, not really everything else.  In my September post I noted that there are lots of agencies that all maintain lots of data sets — certainly many more than 170 — and there are few reasons the city shouldn’t be as expansive as possible in making them publicly available in a structured way.  (And the city doesn’t need a BigApps competition to do that.) 

One data set in particular that doesn’t seem to have made the list is the license-restricted, fee-based “MapPLUTO” data from the Planning Department.  It amazes me that they can still charge up to $1,500 annually for this data while all this other information is now freely available.  But I guess it’s either bureaucratic inertia or ineptitude or perhaps some small-minded administrator somewhere holds far too much power over this data.

But nonetheless I’ll say it again, I’m impressed ith the DataMine site.  And on the face of it, it seems like a sea change in how the city is thinking about data access.  Hopefully it’s also just a start, and eventually we’ll see most everything else available like it should be.  The city’s news release states that the data being posted today will

remain available for public use after the conclusion of the competition.

So there’s hope that this effort goes beyond Big Apps and will be the first step in a broader open data effort.

People may also quibble with the formats (a mix of Excel, ESRI shapefiles, ASCII text, RSS feeds, etc) and whether they’ll be a system of providing automated updates to interested users.  And a recent post by Micah Sifry argues that Mayor Bloomberg’s

vision is still based on an outdated understanding of government-as-vending-machine (we put money in as taxpayers, they deliver services) rather than a platform (we are enabled by government to connect people together around identifying problems and solutions and acting together in small and big ways).

The criticisms are valid and the debate is healthy.  If DataMine and BigApps are first steps, however, I think overall they’re good ones.  And more debate will hopefully steer the battleship that is NYC government in an even better direction regarding open data, open government, and transparency across the board.

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