The Pittsburgh Data Trust

BY BETSY GARDNER • August 9, 2022

OD2. User Guidance for Open and Shared Data

Your local government provides clear “how-to” guidance to help all internal and external users (city staff, residents, businesses, etc.) access, analyze, engage, and use open and shared city data.

Anyone seeking data in the western Pennsylvania area has access to a unique one-stop shop: the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center (WPRDC), a non-profit data trust supported by a partnership between the city of Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh, and Allegheny County. Established in 2015 with assistance from data analyst Bob Gradeck at the University of Pittsburgh, the WPRDC has a fiduciary responsibility to government data sharing, not just among local governments but also with the public. With its dedication to clear and transparent data sharing and robust user guidance resources, the WPRDC trust is a leading example of the new OD2 criteria in the What Works Cities (WWC) Certification Standard. 

The city and county had to set up significant infrastructure to build the data trust and move the data between the city, county, and trust. Chris Belasco, data services manager for Pittsburgh, explained that data can be uploaded automatically or manually using specific sheets from the trust. The city does offer geographic information system (GIS) data available on its website, but otherwise everything is open to the public and internal employees through the WPRDC.

Just because data is open doesn’t mean it’s genuinely accessible. Therefore, the city and county developed comprehensive Data User Guides to help all users analyze and utilize information from the trust. The WPRDC covers what Belasco describes as an “interesting mix” geographically; Allegheny is a populous county and Pittsburgh is a mid-sized economic driver. For this reason Belasco stated that the data trust would always need to be done in conjunction, since the city and county data are so intertwined. With multiple data sources covering so many topics, the very straightforward user guides and tutorials make both the context and contents more readily accessible.

For example, the 311 User Guide covers how to understand and use the city’s repository of 311 data. The guide starts by explaining not just the history and use of 311 in Pittsburgh but also by outlining the different types of technology used to run 311, how that data is processed through the city’s software, and the specific formatting, including a link to the different codes and definitions. The guide also covers  workflow, which provides significant context for who in the city manages which  processes and is thereby responsible for collecting, integrating, and taking action on 311 data. Finally, the guide discusses important things to know about the data, including potential limitations (such as restrictions on geographic information for privacy reasons and lack of integration with county data). 

The WPRDC also pulls in data from places like United Way and other community partners to provide a comprehensive community picture. Since this community data is included, having such clear guides for the public users helps ensure that the data trust concept is really meaningful. Belasco sees a direct link between the WPRDC user guides and the trust needed when holding and sharing community data. If the data was simply shared but not truly accessible through these materials, there would be a lack of connection and trust between residents and the city-county.  

There are also important benefits for the internal data teams. Trever Stoll, Pittsburgh’s civic innovations specialist, reported that the process of reviewing and processing their work for the WWC certification helped guide more employees to the trust and use more data in their work — especially folks who weren’t initially comfortable as data users. Additionally it helped the city develop a data governance plan. Trust users can subscribe to specific data sources, and the team can see how many people follow what kinds of data and what data is frequently (or infrequently) pulled from the WPRDC. Depending on these metrics the teams can internally decide what else they should collect or how to better share data with the public.

Ultimately, Belasco and Stoll feel that creating easily-understood data guides is a win for everyone in the region. Thanks to the guides, more people can actually sort through the data and become more empowered in identifying issues or asking questions to the city and county.

About the Author

Betsy Gardner

Betsy Gardner is the editor of Data-Smart City Solutions and the producer of the Data-Smart City Pod. Prior to joining the Ash Center, Betsy worked in a variety of roles in higher education, focusing on deconstructing racial and gender inequality through research, writing, and facilitation. She also researched government spending and transparency at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Betsy holds a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Policy from Northeastern University, a bachelor’s degree in Art History from Boston University, and a graduate certificate in Digital Storytelling from the Harvard Extension School.