City’s open data portal goes online with hopes of creative use by public

The city of Charlottesville recently unveiled an online portal for datasets from the city government, with the hope that “civic hackers” will use the data to improve the community.
Many American cities have adopted policies governing the online distribution of open data. By definition, open data is free, has no legal restrictions on its use and does not require registration to download.
In 2016, Mayor Mike Signer helped to form an Open Data Advisory Group of city staff and representatives from the University of Virginia and local businesses and nonprofits.
The advisory group crafted an official open data policy for Charlottesville, which was unanimously adopted by the City Council in June. The group has worked to ensure that the city’s public datasets do not reveal information about individual residents.
City representatives and members of the Charlottesville Data Science Meetup group recently hosted a launch event for the open data portal at the offices of Open Source Connections in the King Lumber Building.
Signer gave some brief remarks before the website was presented to an audience of about 75 people.
“I think it is really important for cities to open up their data, and democratize access to what they are doing well, and what they are not doing well,” Signer said.
Signer said the data portal would allow people outside of government — including software developers and data scientists — to “hack” the city’s open data, in the hopes that useful insights will be extracted and online resources for the Charlottesville community will be created.
“It’s not something I am going to spend any time doing, or have any idea how to do,” Signer said.
“We are tapping into a new group of folks that can help make our community better,” said Jason Ness, business development manager for the city.
Ness said the open data portal was developed at no additional cost to the city, except for staff time.
The portal — hosted at  — closely mirrors the homepage of the federal government’s data depository, . It features a search bar and icons that link to datasets for different topics. Much of the geographic data on the site is visualized with the ArcGIS mapping system.
The portal includes base layers for GIS maps that highlight different land uses, such as driveways, parking areas and sidewalks. It also features detailed hydrographic maps, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s map of the Rivanna River’s floodplain in Charlottesville during a “100-year flood.”
Some datasets are categorized by their relation to the city’s five Strategic Plan goals. Crime data and the locations of bicycle racks can be found under Goal 2: A Healthy and Safe City.
Greg Burnett, a database administrator at Crutchfield and a member of the Open Data Advisory Group, said the datasets on the website would be regularly updated, and new datasets soon would be added. “The availability of more data is just around the corner,” he said.
Robert Brown, a stormwater technician for the city, said the city eventually could contribute data about stormwater management and other public utilities. However, he said federal homeland security regulations prevent Charlottesville from sharing information about its natural gas utilities.
“It’s great for government to be more transparent — you can’t beat open data for that,” Brown said.
Many of the people who attended the launch event were affiliated with UVa’s Data Science Institute. Phil Bourne, director of the institute, said he and his colleagues were interested in using the new data from Charlottesville, and were looking at ways that UVa could contribute its own data to the portal.
The Data Science Institute’s assistant director, Reggie Leonard, said the institute is piloting a Civic Data Lab course this year in collaboration with the UVa Library.
“Our students are getting opportunities to use their skills at the grassroots level,” Leonard said. “I would like to see more students get engaged in civic issues — maybe tackling the problem of ‘food deserts,’ instead of making another food delivery app.”
Michael Prichard, CEO of data analytics startup Metis Machine, said it would be helpful for the Open Data Advisory Group to engage Charlottesville’s tech community by sharing some examples of how open data from other cities has been used.
“If you give us some ideas, someone in this room probably will take that up and do it for you as a fun project, for free,” Prichard said. “Challenge us, and I think someone will figure it out.”
Lucas Ames, co-founder of the civic innovation nonprofit Smart Cville, said in an email that he was proud of what the Open Data Advisory Group had accomplished so far.
“As the city expands its open data over time, we believe the portal will become increasingly useful to civic innovators, academics and city officials themselves,” he said.
Ames said Smart Cville will host a workshop in conjunction with the city and the Data Science Institute to introduce people to the open data portal, and will give attendees the opportunity to work on visualizations and apps with guidance from experts. The Open Data Bootcamp is scheduled for Sept. 22 at CitySpace.