Pittsburgh councilwoman Rudiak introduces open data bill

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Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak announced a proposal Tuesday to make a wealth of information -- from the location of potholes, to building permits, to paving schedules -- available to the public on a new city website and for consumption by the tech community who could transform the data into useful apps.

Following a morning new conference, Ms. Rudiak introduced before council the Open Data Ordinance, a piece of legislation that will not only lay the groundwork for the new initiative, but could change the way citizens access public data altogether.

"We want to blow the doors of this building open to provide information," Mr. Peduto said.

Critically, the legislation puts the onus on the city to proactively provide public data on the city website -- rather than forcing citizens to endure a cumbersome right-to-know process. That process, outlined under the state's right-to-know law, allows government agencies to wait up to a month or more to release data, even if there's little dispute that it falls within the realm of public information.

"Right-to-know is about asking for information, about going through the red tape," Ms. Rudiak said. "This bill is about giving the information. It's about unlocking the information -- and without going through months of red tape to obtain it."

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, said a proactive approach could benefit the city and the public.

"If you can avoid the administrative process, you can free up staff from the agency to work on nonpublic access issues," she said. "It saves time for the agency employees, and it saves money for the taxpayers."

If the law passes, Pittsburgh will join several big cities -- such as San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia -- in opening its data to the public. Raw data could be perused by the public, but the tech community could also use it to create helpful apps or programs.

If the bill passes, the project will be undertaken by Laura Meixell, the city's first data and analytics manager. Ms. Meixell, who has a master's degree in public administration from the University of Pittsburgh, will be charged with creating the platform to deliver the data. Mr. Peduto said the project will take about $100,000 in staff time, but his administration's focus on developing data sets could reap cost-savings.

Mr. Peduto is pushing not only to get data out to the public, but also to better utilize it in-house as well to measure a department's performance and to more effectively marshal the city's dwindling resources. Collecting data also has benefitted cities looking for ways to better get information out to the public. In Chicago, for example, programmers developed a website that allows residents to track snow plows during a storm, allowing them to better choose their routes to work.

But by giving that raw data to the public, it vastly expands potential uses. In Oakland, for example, a nonprofit called OpenOakland -- a collaborative of civic-minded "data geeks" and programmers -- worked with city officials to get in-depth information about the cash-strapped city's proposed budget in an Excel spreadsheet, where they could dissect the numbers and present it in a user-friendly way on a website called Open Budget Oakland.

Steve Spiker, the executive director of OpenOakland who also works for the Urban Strategies Council, said turning the data over to local tech communities allows them to create apps that meet the needs of their neighborhoods.

"The underlying premise of all this is that if this information is only held by government, there's going to be a limit of what government can do, with limited funds," he said. "By releasing the data or let anybody build what they want ... the things that are built generally meet local needs."

Robert Gradeck operates the Pittsburgh Neighborhood & Community Information System out of Pitt. The PNCIS is a massive database of in-depth property information that he has assembled through special arrangements with the city. The Open Data Ordinance, he said, could mean the tech community could vastly expand on the work of PNCIS.

"We'll be able to focus on using the data with more folks, and we don't have to be the only ones who can build the tools," he said, "and we can partner with more folks."

Open data doesn't just benefit the tech-savvy, or those with smartphones. Its benefits have the potential to reach even disconnected populations without computers. Mr. Spiker said open data can help community groups identify gaps in social services, for example, and where to target resources.

"It should translate to more effective programs targeted to where they're needed," he said. "That lets community organizers advocate for more equitable services for their communities."

Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee.

Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2533. Twitter: @MoriahBee. First Published January 14, 2014 7:55 AM

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