Open data: what SA cities can learn from New York - TechCentral

Open data: what SA cities can learn from New York

New York City

A city is its people and the outcomes of the decisions and actions they can and do take individually or as groups. These outcomes, decisions and actions can be measured and captured. What would it require to take this data that makes up the city and use it to make decisions and actions more effective and efficient, and by extension, make the city a better place for its people? What would it mean for a residents’ association to have access to all service delivery-related queries made to a municipality? What would it mean for a business to have access to critical data made freely available in the public domain?

It is these questions that cities across the world are attempting to address. Large US cities are among those that have made the greatest progress, but there are others elsewhere in the world that have done significant amounts of work, too. The early success of American cities, in part, has been due to the open-data movement having been initiated in the US by a group of data activists all the way back in 2007. The movement seeks to ensure that data can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone. It is underpinned by the principles that data should be complete, made available in a timely manner, be accessible, be machine-processable, be available to everyone, be available in a format that no party has exclusive control over and be licence-free.

The application of these principles in relation to government information in the US was realised through the signing of the memorandum on transparency and open government by former President Barack Obama in 2009. This gave the federal government three months to define how each institution would open its data repositories to the public. States and local governments, especially in the cities, followed. Eight years later, there is growing concern around the security of federal data, and that open-data initiatives will be curtailed under the Donald Trump presidency. Despite this, city initiatives to open data continue to grow from strength to strength.

The New York City open-data website is an example of this. The website is laid out simply. Scrolling down the homepage, a wide range of datasets are presented by category and city agency (department).

The most popular datasets include the department of buildings’ “job application filings”, which provide daily updates to applications made to the city for development or redevelopment of buildings. Applicants and the public can go and see what type of development is being approved. This gives developers and the public the potential to respond immediately to the changing status of the application.

The “new driver application” dataset is also hugely popular with New Yorkers and is updated several times a day.

Heavily used

A third very heavily used part of the website is the “311 service requests” dataset, which provides every complaint, in New York City, and the response to that complaint, for the past seven years. Issues covered range from public disturbances, to rat sightings, to the condition of trees in streets, to the ubiquitous pothole. The dataset includes the agency responsible for dealing with the complaint as well the geographical location of the complaint so that issues can be mapped and recurring problems identified.

Responsibility for open data in New York sits jointly with the mayor’s office of data analytics (Moda) and the mayor’s office of technology and innovation (Moti). Moda provides no-cost data analytics for all agencies within local government. Moti operates as the advertiser for Moda and is responsible for sparking innovation within city agencies and getting them to buy into open data and open government. Agencies that buy into the idea bring their proposed projects, with new datasets captured and loaded onto the open-data website. Agency compliance is sought through an open-data law, which also defines the roles of Moda and Moti in relation to open data.

Cape Town has taken an early lead among South African cities

Besides the help of the New York City government, the success of the open-data website is due to the input of academics, non-profit organisations and businesses. Not only was the open-data activism of the late 2000s instrumental in getting the initiative off the ground, but the initiative has been stimulated and maintained by ongoing intervention by key organisations and individuals. One such organisation is BetaNYC, which was instrumental in getting the New York City open-data legislation approved. BetaNYC have grown from a volunteer group of civic minded IT professionals to a non-government organisation that runs the NYC Community Data Portal and CityGram, an app that lets citizens track issues that affect them. It’s through organisations such BetaNYC that the city’s open-data initiative has been so successful.

A criticism of the open-data approach is that it threatens IT companies that provide proprietary software, or that repackage and sell government information for profit. The New York example shows that in certain instances this is true. But what it also has shown is that space has been created for new businesses — and for growing existing businesses. Companies that have been able take advantage of New City’s open data include Enigma, which repackages government information for clients, SiteCompli, which works in the building information and site compliance space, and Rentlogic, which plays in the real estate industry.

The New York example highlights how far that South African cities need to go in making public information available to their citizens. Cape Town is the one city that has made a start in this regard.

The non-profit South African Cities Network has made available high-level comparative data for nine South African cities on the SA Cities Data Almanac (Scoda). And national treasury has made all key municipal finance databases available on its open-data website, Munimoney.

If South African cities are committed to being open in their relationship with the public and want to combat allegations of non-responsiveness and corruption, making information easily available and usable through open-data websites will be a step in the right direction.

The New York experience shows that this will require having the correct legislative environment as well as dedicated support from academic, business and open-data organisations.

  • Article written by Richard Gevers of Open Data Durban and Peter Magni of the South African Cities Network
  • Open Data Durban is a non-profit civic technology lab that implements and advocates for open-data, open-government and civic technology through projects, events, workshops and “dataquests” (hackathons for everyone, especially non‐techies)
  • The South African Cities Network is a non-profit organisation and learning network, knowledge generator and disseminator around good governance and sound management of South African cities

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