Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
There's never been a better time to be an urban researcher
Just about every city is strapped for cash these days. But where they're lacking in money, metros all over the world have begun to tap into a new wealth: data. Inside the urban open-government revolution, do-gooding coders are joining forces with newly digitized municipal data sets, with the promise that we could design better bus routes, run city services more efficiently and restore faith in municipal government – all without huge outlays for new infrastructure or mega-projects.
Today, most major cities now offer some form of an online data catalog. You can find them at datasf.org or data.seattle.gov or data.cityofchicago.org. They contain both handy maps for novices (including, say, the locations of every bike rack in downtown Seattle) and sortable raw data sets for enterprising developers who can turn all these spreadsheets into smart-phone applications. Non-profit initiatives like Civic Commons are meanwhile partnering with cities to convert valuable data into even more useful urban solutions like bus-tracking systems.
All of this means that there's never been a better time to be a data geek (or an urban researcher, or anyone who likes to quantify stuff).
"That's got to be true," Frank Hebbert, who works with the open-data pioneers OpenPlans, emails us. "There's an amazing profusion of tools and huge interest in what gets produced. From a policy perspective, what does that mean?"
To be continued.
But first, we start with the raw data, the reams of information on which all of these ideas will be built. Here are some of our favorites that have been released this year.
1. Code violations in Seattle – This comprehensive database, up-to-date through last week, tracks citations for everything from illegal housing units to "observed outdoor junk storage" to – gasp – "vegetation over the sidewalk." Each violation also links to a separate page where you can track the progress on a complaint (if, say, you're the one who filed it and you want to watch the city follow through).
2. City payments to vendors in Washington, D.C. – In a city with a venerable tradition of government contracts given to political pals, this data set makes transparent exactly which vendors are getting how much money for what, on a quarterly basis, which helps track government compliance with District procurement and local business development laws.
3. Mosquito trap data in Edmonton – This data set tracks the capture results of mosquitoes caught in various parts of town throughout the spring and summer. Most impressive, said mosquitoes are identified by species: cataphylla, cinereus, communis, diantaeus, hexodontus… you get the idea.
4. Electricity consumption by zip code in New York City – This data, from consumption in 2010, also breaks down by building type and utility provider. The number is a good stand-in for examining energy efficiency, or checking out the likely utility costs in your next apartment.
5. One-way streets in Toronto – This Canadian metro, which is trying to “build a city that thinks like the web,” apparently has more one-way streets than most residents realize. We could see practical uses for this data for cab drivers, traffic managers and navigation services. (Bonus points to Toronto for their great slogan: “Data, eh?”)
6. London daytime population by borough – Jane Jacobs would have loved this one, as a fierce advocate for the idea that mixed uses are important because they bring people in and out of a neighborhood during all hours of the day. This data set draws on information from employment surveys, population surveys, tourism models and the Department of Education.
7. Relocated vehicles in Chicago – This woman could have really benefited from such a database. Chicago residents can search for their vehicle by plate number to figure out where a towed car has been relocated, whether the offending car snatchers are police, water management crews, or utility workers.
8. Chicago public employee salaries – By position title and name, that is. From foster grandparent Betty Abbott ($2,756) to chief database analyst Dariusz Zyskowski ($110,352), this list bares all. We can’t say this for sure, but we’re guessing that a majority of the 12,641 people who’ve clicked on this thing as of this week were other Chicago city employees.
9. Parking meter locations in San Francisco – This data set includes every parking meter in the city, as of September of this year, that's owned by either the Port of San Francisco or the city's Municipal Transportation Agency. The data also breaks down by smart meter status, on- or off-street location and use type and restrictions. Such data is integral to parking apps available to drivers in the city.
10. Traffic signals in Vancouver – This file contains the location of every traffic signal in the city, a fundamental piece of infrastructure information that could help developers design better bus routes, traffic flows and navigation tools.