City Launches Portal Providing Access to City Datasets

City Launches Portal Providing Access to City Datasets

Cambridge is starting down the path of providing greater transparency and accountability by opening data sets for public use

The City of Cambridge unveiled its Open Data Portal last week, reversing years of policy that made access to data difficult. Retired City Manager Robert Healy dismissed this sort of effort as a "fad" which the City would not pursue. While access to data was possible, it required a Public Records request along with a payment for expenses, or, perhaps, a City Council resolution.

The portal which can be found at currently includes 113 datasets, covering a wide range of city activities. According to the City, it's making data available to provide greater access, increase transparency, improve the delivery of City services, and spark the creation of innovative businesses and services. Cambridge's data portal not only allows the download of datasets for analysis, it provides its own basic tools for display, visualization, and sharing on other web sites. All the data displayed in this article were created with those tools.

The datasets cover the following categories:

  • Assessing
  • Budget/Finance
  • General Government
  • Geographic Information (GIS)
  • Inspectional Services
  • Planning
  • Public Safety
  • Public Works
  • Traffic, Parking, and Transportation

Some data is certain to be of public interest. The portal includes a map of Rodent Violations reported from November 2013 to May 2014.

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There is also a table of budgeted salaries for the City, though without any names.

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This first set of data includes datasets that were otherwise available. Geographic Information System data was available first on CD and was later on web-hosting site GITHUB. Census data, as well, was available from the Census Bureau and the City's web site. These data, however, were often hard to find, inconsistent in their presentation, or locked within formats that made using them challenging. Placing the data on one web site, with descriptions and searching facilities, makes discovery of interesting data easier.

The Open Data Portal's launch precedes the City Council's adoption of an open data ordinance for the City. City Councilor Leland Cheung started the process of drafting a policy last fall, aided by members of the community and volunteers from Code for Boston. After pausing for the election, new Councilor Nadeem Mazen restarted the process, consulting with the Sunlight Foundation, a national transparency group. The ordinance, as currently drafted, would establish, as a matter of policy, that data generated by the City, except for cases involving privacy, legally protected data, or confidential City functions, would be open and available. The ordinance would also establish an Open Data Review Board, including members of the public, to help balance the public interest in transparency with concerns about specific data.

The City's release of parking violation data illustrates the difficulty in making these judgments. The City's parking violation data includes all citations issued in the first quarter of this year. Like much of the data, it's easy to map using Socrata's tools and from that, you learn that violations cluster where there is the most contention for parking.

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The dataset, as released, omits the license plate number of the violation for "privacy" reasons. The act of parking on a public street is not one for which people can have any reasonable expectation of privacy. Being cited for a violation is, itself, a public act, a ticket being left on the vehicle in question. If one wished to follow Traffic and Parking officers around and take pictures of each violation, the City would be hard pressed to find any justification to stop it. But the City's concerns are not without a certain merit. The use of automated license plate readers - devices that record license plates and their locations - has drawn opposition from civil liberties groups, despite the fact they record information that is clearly public. The City is clearly correct in drawing a line, but the question is the process by which the line is drawn and where it ends up.

Who receives parking tickets is information that can clearly be a matter of public interest. Parking ticket scandals are fairly common. The Cranston, Rhode Island Police Chief was recently forced to resign over one, and in 2011, New York City faced a ticketing scandal that embroiled dozens of police officers. In Cambridge, a certain former Harvard Law School student's parking tickets became national news in 2007 when Barak Obama paid his long overdue tickets in preparation for his presidential campaign.

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This work by Saul Tannenbaum is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Include access to the most recent Minutes of the most recent Public Meetings of Boards/Commissions .

A "fad." Healy... Bell-bottoms were a "fad." Thanks Saul. The Inspectional Services data would be a fun read, or maybe not!