Charlottesville Data Bootcamp

It was my pleasure to present at the Charlottesville Data Bootcamp this Friday. The town just recently launched their open data site and were eager to teach the community about what was available and hear feedback and ideas on what could be improved and extended.

The event hosted about 70 people that varied across disciplines and experience. I met librarians, data scientists, attempted politicians, civic advocates, retirees and quite a few government staff. Each conversation was enlightening, giving me insight into expectations, hopes and creative ideas to use the newly available information, tools, and access to start addressing some key issues.

Charlottesville was ahead of the curve by defining key initiatives guides by strategic goals and measures. And local residents like Nate Day were already providing documentation for other community analysts.

But launching an open data site, and posting strategy are just the table stakes for effective engagement. Hosting an in person event where people can meet, build relationships and hear honest feedback is imperative to making this work real and effective.

Below are the slides and notes from my talk. My hope was that it recognizes the work that is necessary to start opening information from government agencies, while also aspiring to greater collaboration and coordination that engages every person in a city to become a direct supporter of community initiatives.

Talk: Cultivating a Smart Community

Charlottesville’s stated goals for their site are to…

  • promote civic innovation
  • underscore data-driven decision making
  • demonstrate the power of and advocating for open data

I’ve been visiting Charlottesville since I was a child. My father and his siblings attended the University of Virginia, and I followed along as an Aerospace Engineering student building the UVA Solar Powered, Robotic Airship. While at UVA, I met my wife and we were in the Pep Band (when that was allowed) and later married in Charlottesville. Now we bring our own kids to Charlottesville, and one day hope to retire here. So improving the local community is something that I’m personally invested in.

I spent the beginning of my career designing and building spacecraft control systems. This GOCE satellite orbited so low that the fins used aerodynamic drag to keep the spacecraft aligned. The spacecraft measured a highly-precise and accurate gravity fields. But ultimately, only a small number of people had access to the incredible data from this satellite - and that’s unfortunately common across a lot of measurement systems.

I had the fortune to start working with small communities around the world to use this data to address their local needs and opportunities.

Data Driven Citizenship

In 2015, Pew research study found “65% of Americans in the prior 12 months have used the internet to find data or information pertaining to government.”

Few Americans think governments are very effective in sharing data they collect with the public:

  • Just 5% say the federal government does this very effectively, with another 39% saying the federal government does this somewhat effectively.
  • 5% say state governments share data very effectively, with another 44% saying somewhat effectively.
  • 7% say local governments share data very effectively, with another 45% responding somewhat effectively.

People’s baseline level of trust in government strongly shapes how they view the possible impact of open data and open government initiatives on how government functions.

How can we build Data Driven Citizenship?

City Ensembles

Cities are complex systems of interoperating infrastructure: buildings, roads, water & electrical utilities, information systems. We tend to measure and work with this data to understand and how the city was built.

What is often unmeasured is how the city is used. Every moment of every day the city is alive with people in motion - using assets, moving along streets, pumping water. They are making decisions, actions that influence their commute, their day, their lives. And each day is unique - different from the previous and unexpectedly different tomorrow.

And our cities are not just filled with residents. Cities grow in size through commuters, tourists, and resettlers - potentially doubling the number of people during some hours of the day.

Ultimately, everyone has a place they call home. This street, or building or neighborhood is where they make some of the most important decisions in their life. Their largest financial investment, where they fall in love, walk their dog, raise their children, meet with friends - and grow old and pass on. I believe that no one cares more about a neighborhood street than the people who live there. It is ultimately they who are the lifeblood of our cities.

The real role of government is to create a community that residents, visitors, and business people find to be a great place to live, work, and play.

Hyong Yi Assistant City Manager, City of Charlotte

While Every neighborhood is unique, they must act in coordination with one another and the city as a whole. The city is an Ensemble of individual people and streets that cohesively, and coherently comprise the thriving city.

Initiatives are a measurable goal and strategy to improve a particular community need. To be effective, Initiatives require collaboration across government agencies, citizen communities and businesses.

Charlottesville’s Goals:

“We believe providing the data behind our Strategic Plan Goals will allow for better and more informed decision-making, enhance collaboration among City departments, and engage our community in the activities of our organization.”

Example: Vision Zero in DC

Vision Zero is a multi-national road traffic safety project which aims to achieve a highway system with no fatalities or serious injuries in road traffic. It started in Sweden and was approved by their parliament in October 1997.

DC Dept of Transportation (DDOT) started with informing the public and sharing data of historic collisions. But this was only the story of where collisions occurred and were reported. What streets were unsafe and had near-hits, or were likely to have a future accident due to poor visibility, too-short crosswalk timings, speeding cars, or lack of protected bike lanes.

DDOT created a public survey where any citizen could report unsafe conditions for pedestrians, bicyclists or motorists. Within the first week they received over 5,000 citizen reports, all of which became an open dataset and also integrated with their 311 service response system.

Now the public could participate in analyzing the historic data, as well as survey data, to answer a few key questions that DDOT needed to know, but didn’t have the internal capacity to answer: where were the most unsafe intersections? Were there trends in accidents by time of day, weather, impact type, or other potential characteristics?

In a few evenings, citizen volunteers whose day jobs were data analytics volunteered to analyze this data to answer these questions and share the results back to the city and advocacy groups. Now the city could prioritize their work orders and infrastructure improvements. Together the city and citizens had a collaborative role to improve the city for everyone.

Public Digital Infrastructure

The government is now supporting a public, digital infrastructure powered by their own enterprise information systems.

StoryMaps are an amazing tool to craft and convey your vision for a better community. Without any coding you can write an immersive story that includes data, maps, videos and other information for compelling narratives to action.

You can quickly design surveys to gather public input, or gather internal metrics on performance and operations.

Spend a few minutes to configure a modern, responsive, and interaction web application with WebApp Builder.

There are over 400 open-source apps, libraries and other developer SDK that work with the Charlottesville open data site. You can do analysis directly in Python and Jupyter notebooks, or in R and other languages. We support open-source tools for map visualization and charting and other info graphics.

MyStreet is an open-source application you can configure to provide residents with a very simple view around their house, business, or other place of interest. When is my trash day and what police district am I located in? You can also update the configuration in realtime if you need to share new information in an emergency or weather event like “is my nearby bus running and are the schools closed?”

We have a new open-source research project called “Sonar”. You can now build ‘chat bots’ for Facebook, Slack, SMS Text and Amazon Alexa that integrate with open data. Citizens can now ask questions of your city through familiar, and accessible, social media or ubiquitous devices instead of having to visit your website.

Build for Real People with Real Needs

You’re probably a bit overwhelmed. And maybe a few of you are thinking “I don’t code/design/write, so probably can’t do something with an impact”. Let me tell you a story of an 11-year old kid from a recent hackathon I attended. He has two particular passions in life. His first is history. He loves it. Can’t learn enough about the who/why/what/when of our past. When he’s riding in the back seat of his dad’s car, he sees these white-colored historic markers fly by. When he asks his dad what it said, his father probably didn’t get a chance to read it as he’s driving down the road.

The boy decided he wanted to build an app to address this problem. So he found the historic markers web database, and configured a web app that worked on his laptop and responsive for a mobile screen. He configured the geolocation, and some other displays so that he could see the marker image and read the historic text. Now, whenever he sees one of these markers on the road, his dad hands the boy his phone and he’s able to “Find nearby” and immediately read the fascinating history of where Thelonius Monk was born.

The boy’s other passion is not dying when he walks to and from school every day. There are often many scary intersections he and his friends have to cross, with sunlight or other factors potentially distracting drivers. So he configured a form where his friends and their parents can sign up for a “Walking School Bus”. When they sign up, he setup a walking route optimization analysis to suggest “walking routes” for multiple families, when they should leave and when they are picking up each child at their house. He also created a mobile survey that the parents can use to report dangerous intersections and driving. This data is now being used by the city to evaluate new walking infrastructure and crossing guards for dangerous intersections.

The boy did all of this work in a few hours at the hackathon and presented it to the judges. He won the entire competition.

If an 11-year-old kid can be inspired to solve important problems and accomplish them in a few hours, then so can you.

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About the Author

Andrew Turner is an advocate of open standards and open data. He is actively involved in many organizations developing and supporting open standards, including OpenStreetMap, Open Geospatial Consortium, Open Web Foundation, OSGeo, and the World Wide Web Consortium. He co-founded CrisisCommons, a community of volunteers that, in coordination with government agencies and disaster response groups, build technology tools to help people in need during and after a crisis such as an earthquake, tsunami, tornado, hurricane, flood, or wildfire.