OpenGov Voices: The role of information intermediaries in open data

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An image of Bob Gradeck, Project Manager for the Pittsburgh Neighborhood and Community Information System
Bob Gradeck, Project Manager, Pittsburgh Neighborhood and Community Information System. Image credit: Pittsburgh Neighborhood and Community Information System

I was recently asked to deliver a presentation at a Pittsburgh City Council meeting to discuss the benefits of open data legislation. Developing the presentation provided me with an opportunity to reflect on my work with the Pittsburgh Neighborhood and Community Information System (PNCIS) and think about how the nature of my work will change with the arrival of open data.

Since 2005, the PNCIS has served over 900 users in government, nonprofit and educational institutions by providing accurate information and analysis on property and community conditions in the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. The PNCIS is a project of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research (UCSUR).

UCSUR serves as the Pittsburgh partner in the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP), a collaboration of the Urban Institute and local partners in 37 cities to advance the development and use of neighborhood information systems. Like our NNIP partners, UCSUR is a community information intermediary. In that role, we do a number of things to help people in all communities make use of information, including: requesting data, cleaning data, advocating for data standards, providing feedback on data, sharing data, documenting data, delivering training and technical assistance, building tools, analyzing information and promoting the use of data.

Releasing data openly will have broad community benefits in Pittsburgh. These benefits will be shared by many different constituencies beyond the “civic hackers” that get much of the attention in the discussion of open data. My presentation highlighted stories of how seven different consumers have worked with data through the PNCIS.

Students and faculty are two groups of data users we work with at universities. We help provide faculty with data for their research, deliver guest lectures in their classes and work directly with their students through class projects and training sessions. We also directly support several students each year through internships. Some of these students continue to work with data after graduation and have gone on to careers in government and the nonprofit sector. Laura Meixell, one of our former students is now managing open data initiatives for the City of Pittsburgh.

BobGradeckPNCIS

Image credit: Pittsburgh Neighborhood and Community Information System

Community-based organizations are also among the largest users of the PNCIS. Timely and accurate real estate information is essential to their work. One of the stories shared at our first-annual Users Conference, involved the work of the Homewood Children’s Village and Operation Better Block. PNCIS helped its partners develop a visual property survey instrument and using this survey and tax delinquency data, community organizers identified the thirty most-distressed properties in the Homewood neighborhood and encouraged residents to call the City and demand action. Within one month, two-thirds of these 30 properties were improved.

Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh is a social service organization whose staff were trained to use property tax exemption and sales data to target home repair services to older low-income homeowners. As a result, the organization was able to spend less time marketing their services and increase their geographic impact by serving more clients in a single neighborhood.

Residents are an additional user group that has benefited from the PNCIS. With the growth in oil and gas drilling in our region, we were asked to help identify where drilling was likely to occur. One of our students scraped parcel-level lease data from a county website and shared it through an online map. One homebuyer would routinely ask when the data would be updated, as he wanted to avoid buying a home in an area with leasing activity.

Many local journalists see the potential benefit of open data in their work and have been very interested in the prospects for open data legislation. Each week, UCSUR receives several requests from journalists. We routinely provide information and analysis in support of their work. Several local news outlets have recently hired reporters with data analysis and development experience.

Government agencies may be the largest beneficiary of open data and information sharing has the potential to improve efficiency and transform the nature of the relationship with citizens. We have helped local government partners use data to plan for land banking, re-draw school attendance boundaries and better-understand neighborhood housing and demographic trends.

Even in “open data” cities, information intermediaries have been vital in helping promote the use of data in community planning and decision-making processes. The act of opening data does not guarantee information will be used effectively in each of our City’s neighborhoods.

UCSUR is preparing for open data by ordering products and services around four goals:

 Goal 1. Making more data available by:

  • creating a shared open data portal with government and nonprofit partners;
  • advocacy for open data at municipal, county and state levels of government; and
  • working with public agencies to publish aggregate extracts of confidential data.

Goal 2: Making data easier to use through:

  • training in the use of data and tools;
  • advocacy for data standards and other quality improvements; and
  • documenting available datasets.

Goal 3: Promoting the use of data in research, evaluation and benchmarking by:

Goal 4: Enhancing civic engagement by:

  • organizing the community of software developers through OpenPittsburgh, the local Code for America Brigade; and
  • participation in events like the Steel City Codefest connecting developers to the needs of government, civic organizations and residents.

Bob Gradeck is Project Manager for the Pittsburgh Neighborhood and Community Information System at the University of Pittsburgh’s University Center for Social and Urban Research. Bob has 20 years of experience working with community information starting with his work at the Atlanta Project as a graduate student in the Georgia Institute of Technology’s City and Regional Planning program. He is also helping organize OpenPittsburgh, the local Code for America Brigade affiliate. You can reach him at: rmg44@pitt.edu, rgradeck@gmail.com, twitter: @BobGradeck, @pncis.

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