Opening the Data Repositories of Cambridge Government

Opening the Data Repositories of Cambridge Government

The City Council begins consideration of an open data policy to govern technology use

When volunteers from Code for America's Boston Brigade decided to build an app that would help people find local food pantries to which they could donate, they were able to find the data they needed on the Boston city web site. But for Cambridge, the Brigade's Captain Harlan Webber told a meeting of the City Council's Cable TV, Telecommunications & Public Utilities Committee, those volunteers had to resort to detective work to find what they needed. While the agenda of the meeting - developing an open data policy for the City of Cambridge - spoke more to technology, the underlying purpose, said Webber, was to improve the lives of people.

An open data policy, a policy that's currently being implemented for the Federal government and a growing list of municipalities, would mandate that the online public records of Cambridge be maintained in a form that makes them easily usable by the public. Rather than an immediate opening of Cambridge's data repository, it would by the foundation of a cultural change, one that would redefine how Cambridge views technology an ensure an ongoing transparency, while respecting the City's legal obligations for privacy and confidentiality.

The committee meeting, convened by Councilor Leland Cheung July 9th at the Cambridge Co-working Center comes at a critical juncture for technology policy in Cambridge. The City's Information Technology Department (ITD) received increased funding in its budget this year, a recognition that the City has been underinvesting in technology. This increase came despite the department's inability to provide a detailed budget, its claims of accomplishments that have yet to be delivered, and a scathing $200,000 consultant report that detailed how ITD fails to meet expectations of competence and execution.

Cheung's meeting brought Code for America (CfA) volunteers face to face with City Chief Information Officer Mary Hart who had rebuffed three previous efforts by the City Council to have the City tap resources available through CfA. Peppered with offers of assistance and examples from academia and the City of Boston where open access to data has helped the city improve services, Hart suggested that an open data policy was unnecessary.

Two recent examples of how Cambridge would be different With an open data policy

Parks and Waterplay Maps

The widespread availability of online maps has set our expectations. When you click on a link to a map, a browser window opens and you're presented with an interactive map, one in which you can zoom and pan and get directions for driving, walking or public transport. If you're using a smartphone, you get a map that's available in the palm of your hand. When you click on the link for Cambridge's newly updated The Public Parks, Playgrounds and Reservations Map something different happens. A file is downloaded, a file you need to find on your computer and display with other software. Rather than the highly functional, mobile map you might expect, you get a virtual piece of paper.

The map is based on data in the City's Geographical Information System (GIS), a catalog of the location of a range of City assets, from open spaces to buildings. Unlike much City data, the City web site tells you how to get your own copy: print out a form, fill it out, include a check for $75, mail it to a postal address, and you'll receive a DVD by return mail. In contrast, while the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will also accept a check to sell you data, its GIS system allows you to simply download data of interest.

Open data would have made the underlying GIS data available, making the development of a "How to Cool Off in Cambridge" map or app relatively easy to build.

Crime Maps

Last week, the Cambridge Police Department (CPD) released its own map of reported incidents in Cambridge. In this case, you do get the sort of online map you've come to expect, fully interactive. Click on one the icons for an incident, a pop-up appears with the details.

This is one at least four different ways the CPD makes these data available. There's the daily log, their "live" tweets of incidents, and the monthly BridgeStat analysis of crime trends and policing strategies.

The interactive crime map opens a web page that will be recognizable to professionals as part of a GIS. On the page are the elements that make a GIS powerful, the ability to combine other kinds of location dependent information. But, on the Cambridge interactive crime map, those analysis functions are disabled, as is the ability to download the data. CPD has entered into an exclusive arrangement with the map's provider, BAIR Analytics. In return for the taxpayer funded data which BAIR uses as part of its crime analysis business, Cambridge receives an online crime map. If you have interests in the data that go beyond what BAIR wishes to provide, you need to go through whatever process of data release the CPD has. With an open data policy, the data that BAIR receives would be available to anybody, not just a single commercial entity.

The next meeting of the The Cable TV, Telecommunications and Public Utilities Committee to explore the development of an open data ordinance will take place Thursday August 15, 2013 at the Cambridge Innovation Center, 1 Broadway, Havana Room, 5th Floor.

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An interactive map of Cambridge parks is available at

You can select a park and get a popup listing the types of recreational facilities in each park, hours of use, and who to contact with maintenance questions. We are working to explicitly add waterplay features to the park to provide a visual shortcut.