OpenPlans testimony on NYC Open Data

Today I spoke at the New York City Council’s oversight hearing on open data. Here’s my testimony:

Good afternoon. My name is Ellen McDermott. I am co-director of OpenPlans, a not-for-profit technology development firm based in Manhattan. We work with city and state agencies, community boards, and community groups to provide them with better tools for transportation planning and neighborhood planning.

OpenPlans worked closely with Council Member Gale Brewer and others on the council to get the Open Data Law passed. We have been a member of the New York City Transparency Working Group since its inception.

In my testimony today, I will give examples of how open data supports our work as a local technology developer. I also have some recommendations to strengthen the open data ecosystem in New York City.

This fall, we have been working with Community Board 6 in Brooklyn, and CB 6 and CB 7 in Manhattan to create maps showing requested capital spending. With Council Member Lander’s office and the Participatory Budgeting Project, we are helping residents of 8 council districts be more involved in local spending decisions.

And just last week we created a map for the community group Make Brooklyn Safer, which they are using to gather information on street safety issues. The data they are gathering is informing conversations with the 88th Precinct as they work together to improve street safety after several pedestrian fatalities.

The examples I gave are all made easier with the City’s open data. We would like to see more data to enable more community-based planning. I have several recommendations:

First, release more data about spending and capital improvements.

Community organizations will be able to advocate more effectively with access to more detailed, up to date information about capital spending data. Specifically, agency responses to community board requests, past and future discretionary spending by council members, and information about planned and proposed capital spending by NYC DOT, the Parks Department, and other agencies making physical changes to communities.

Secondly, work with users to improve the open data portal.

DoITT should involve users of the data portal in design decisions, to ensure that the portal is working for its intended audience. By convening a ‘useability clinic’, DoITT can tap into the wealth of experience available in New York’s policy and software communities, to guide decisions and make the portal even more useful. This effort needs to be regular and ongoing.

Thirdly, improve city data through community collaboration.

The process of opening up data so far has been one way: data from city agencies has been published in formats that people can use. Looking into the future, we encourage the committee to consider how agencies can save money and have up-to-date information by using community-edited data.

For example, community mapping of street trees, and the freely editable OpenStreetMap. The recent collaboration between DoITT and volunteer cartographers to include building footprint data into OpenStreetMap is a commendable example. Implementing two-way sharing of open data raises complex issues about data quality and data management. I urge this committee to charge DoITT with investigating this topic further.

Finally, I welcome this hearing and commend the committee for giving OpenPlans and other data users a forum to share our concerns and ideas. I suggest regular oversight hearings on progress by DoITT and agencies in opening up their valuable data. My co-workers and I are always available to assist committee members with this important topic, to support greater community involvement in making New York City a better place to live and work.