BLOG: Open Data Initiative Offers Exciting Opportunities

By: Erik Arneson, Executive Director of the Office of Open Records

May 03, 2016

For most people, hearing the phrase “open data” is unlikely to inspire immediate excitement. But Governor Tom Wolf’s recent announcement that Pennsylvania is joining the open data movement will lead to exciting opportunities for taxpayers, academics, and businesses.

Experience in other states and regions has proven that good things happen when the government provides open data – data that’s free to be downloaded, used, and redistributed – in a comprehensive, organized way.

Here are a few examples which I think demonstrate some of the potential of open data.

The Philadelphia Police Department maintains a Crime Maps & Stats page on its website where visitors can easily draw a box around a neighborhood and get data related to crime in that neighborhood from the past week, the past month, or the past six months. Analyzing this data allows the police department to better allocate its resources – and allows residents to play a more active role in making their communities safer.

Illinois posted data related to bids received over a decade starting in 2004. This kind of information can be used by both state and local governments to improve their bidding processes and ensure that qualified bidders are receiving the information they need to place bids, increasing competition and driving down costs.

Oklahoma posted information related to underutilized (less than 50% utilized) state-owned properties. This can help officials – potentially with helpful input from the public, since the data is easily available – better manage state-owned facilities.

New York has posted a dataset showing the horses that have broken down, been injured, or have died at New York State race tracks. Interested citizens can take this data, study it, and work with officials to improve horse safety.

Finally, here’s a fun dataset I really love: Pittsburgh has 739 “streets” which are actually made up of steps. This map explains it all.

To be sure, there’s a lot of hard work ahead to make this initiative live up to its potential. It’s not enough to throw large datasets onto a website. Good data collection is vital, and the datasets need to be posted with good documentation and standard formatting. They should be easy to use and easy to interpret.

Creating an open data portal is the government saying to the world, “Here’s our data. Go do interesting things with it.” It empowers developers, journalists and average citizens to use the data in ways that would not have happened otherwise – giving us all better insight into how to move our state forward.

I can’t wait to see what happens.


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