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By Robert Burack

The proliferation of civic tech projects has led to a growing number of vendors who offer off-the-shelf products for cities and municipalities. At the National League of Cities summit, which brought over 3,500 elected officials and city staffers to Pittsburgh in November 2016, the exhibition hall was full of companies looking to connect with municipal representatives. For many of their needs – a platform for better civic engagement, a tool to track legislation, an application to visualize permit data – private industry offers a modern, customizable, low-barrier solution.

 

While this kind of partnership has led to advent of many notable civic tech projects, off-the-shelf solutions often require trade-offs, such as high purchase costs or a potential disinvestment in a city’s capacity to develop its own products. While private solutions are increasingly customizable, the rise of agile product development within government offers possibilities for a city or municipality to develop its own solutions, through a self-organized, collaborative effort designed around the specific needs of departments or communities.

 

Several blocks from the exhibition hall, the City of Pittsburgh’s Analytics and Strategy team was celebrating the recent launch of Burgh’s Eye View, an application they had built entirely internally in multiple iterations over the prior year. By pulling together open-source resources, investing in their own skillsets, and working closely with city departments to understand needs and make refinements, the team had built a product not found in any vendor’s lineup. The story of Burgh’s Eye View offers not only a window into an innovative application, but a testament to what can emerge when a city invests in its own civic tech resources – an agile product shop.

 

Burgh’s Eye View

While municipal governments have made significant progress in advancing the availability of datasets through open data portals, a more elusive goal remains: how to expand their thoughtful use beyond a handful of civic data enthusiasts. The playfully-named Burgh’s Eye View, which launched to the public in November, is Pittsburgh’s well-designed effort to address this issue and transform the experience of open government.

 

Built as a “one stop shop” for residents and community groups to access and view the datasets that Pittsburgh has published on its regional open data platform, the new responsive web application allows the city’s residents, for the first time, to gain visual insight into a broad range of citywide and neighborhood data — including crime and other public safety incidents, building permits and code violations, and 311 service requests. 

 

Developed by the city’s Analytics and Strategy team, Burgh’s Eye View features a simple, catch-all search bar and date range search, a map that responds and updates as users select the data they want to see, and a mobile-optimized layout for use on smartphones. Users can click checkboxes to turn dataset filters on or off, filter by area (by neighborhood, police zone, City Council district, or Public Works division), or select from dropdown options to display more specific results. Residents looking to see crime in their neighborhood over the past month, for example, can select the date range, keep just the “Police Blotter” layer on, and filter according to where they live.

 

Throughout the development process, the team focused on how they could best improve data access and reduce technical barriers by building an application that would increase and diversify the current audience for civic data. The result is an intuitive and attractive user interface, and a commitment to continuing to design for inclusivity.

 

“The way you make data matter for people who aren’t data scientists is through visualization, and probably the most successful kind of visualization that exists is a map,” said Nick Hall, Open Data Services Engineer for Pittsburgh. “So much of Pittsburgh’s data — because we’re a city — lives in space. It’s geographic. By building one map that can contain lots of different datasets within it, we’re getting the most ‘bang for our buck’ in terms of making this information accessible to residents.”


 

To ensure privacy, sensitive data — such as the locations of arrests — has been generalized to the block or neighborhood level. “What we want to encourage,” said Geoffrey Arnold, a Performance Improvement Analyst for the city and the application’s primary developer, “is the thoughtful use of data.”

 

While the team is focused on rolling the application out to the public, they are hopeful that several types of users will emerge, including community organizers, neighborhood groups, and community development corporations looking to gain a more comprehensive understanding of what’s happening in any of Pittsburgh’s 90 neighborhoods. But, Arnold added, an equally-important goal is to reach individual city residents who may feel disconnected from the operations of city government. “We hope that, overall, Burgh’s Eye View leads to increased accountability for city services and around public safety,” said Arnold.

 

Built Internally

While the application was inspired in part by Chicago’s WindyGrid, it largely grew out of a broader suite of maps previously designed for City Council and individual departments, including Public Works, Permits, Licenses, and Inspections (PLI), and the Bureaus of Police and Fire. These versions, as with Burgh’s Eye View, were built on R Studio, but also include datasets and corresponding filters for internal-facing, departmental information and other data not appropriate for public release. The team began building versions for the Bureau of Police and Public Works Department in early 2016.

 

“When we first showed the Bureau of Police their internal version of Burgh’s Eye View, the first question was ‘what else can you show on this?’ A big item on the wish list was being able to view condemned buildings, which is a major safety concern,” said Arnold. “So, we got to work on integrating that, and as we’ve worked with more departments we’ve been able to integrate more datasets.”

 

While the team spent several weeks readying the public-facing version, its launch was enabled by months of prior development and refinement, in partnership with city departments. “By building this,” said Laura Meixell, the city’s Analytics and Strategy Manager, “my team has been able to take advantage of modern, readily available open-source tools to make applications that directly respond to our users. This approach follows a bit of what Code for America fellowship teams do, but because we're here for the long term we can engage in a broader way. With the different versions of Burgh's Eye View we can respond to multiple streams of feedback simultaneously, sharing what we learn from the departments with citizens in an agile way.”

 

Work has begun on an additional internal version of Burgh’s Eye View for the city’s Finance Department, and they will soon consider which datasets — such as treasury sales — should be made available on the public-facing application. These versions will also be developed in-house, and like prior ones, come at no cost. A partnership with Allegheny County has allowed the team to use the R Shiny Server Pro package, which handles scale, as well as mobile and web traffic issues.

 

Dogfooding Open Data

While the application’s conception and interface are rooted in the emerging practices of inclusive and open governance, one of its more forward-thinking features will likely be invisible to most users. Burgh’s Eye View is populated with data the city supplies nightly to the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center (WPRDC), the region’s open data platform. As users visually sift through data on the application, the underlying datasets are available to be easily exported directly from the application as well as the WPRDC website.

 

“In this way,” said Meixell, “Burgh’s Eye View is built on and enabled by the city’s solid open data foundation.” The Data Center also helps by reverse geocoding the datasets the city submits nightly, adding additional location information to datasets that ultimately allow users to sift through data using a wider variety of geographic filters. This process allows, for example, public safety incidents to be viewed by Council district, even though the Bureau of Police keeps track of incidents according to police zones.

 

Moving Forward

Plans call for the application to be open sourced in the coming weeks, ensuring that the source code can be used and modified by other cities looking to provide a similar tool.

 

Meixell and her team are beginning to look at early user analytics, which have been promising, and to document use cases —  all to ensure that Burgh’s Eye View becomes a “front door” for residents to engage with the city and its neighborhoods. The team has begun working with the city’s Community Affairs office to schedule presentations and user feedback sessions with community development corporations and neighborhood groups, and with Todd Smith, the city’s newly hired Digital Community Specialist, on ways to enhance digital and social media engagement. An early campaign will feature the application’s charming mascot, a penguin holding a magnifying glass, around Pittsburgh with an “eye” on 311 service requests. Images of the mascot next to potholes, graffiti, or other service requests will be coupled with images that represent that request on the application, binding the physical and digital in an attempt to make the data real to residents.

 

“I am especially proud of this effort,” said Meixell, “because it is a reflection of my team’s and the city’s ongoing work to gauge how publicly-available information can be of best use, and to respond to neighborhood needs. By investing in our own capacity, we’re able to be quick and flexible in how we respond to those needs.”

About the Author

Robert Burack

Robert Burack is a Data ​Fellow for the Civic Analytics Network. He is based in Pittsburgh where he works with the Chief Data Officer to further the City's open data and analytics efforts, and to support regional open data collaboration. Previously, he was a Fellow at the Richard King Mellon Foundation, where he focused on manufacturing innovation and helped to launch the nation's first accelerator for craft businesses. He has also served as Programs Director at Break Away, where he forwarded the development of shared community impact assessment tools for the service-learning sector. He has a Bachelor's Degree from the University of Michigan-Flint.

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