The city of Albany unveiled a new website today -- called openAlbany -- for sharing municipality data with the public -- stuff like crime reports, parking tickets, and city employee salaries.
Said mayor Kathy Sheehan today at a press conference about the reasons for putting together the site: "The first is that we spend a great deal of time responding to information and FOIA requests, so now we can just steer the community to Open Albany and it will be there. Also we know there are a lot of people -- who are a lot more tech savvy than me -- that know how to use this date to make maps and organize it in a way that will be helpful."
We've been banging the drum (softly) for something like this for years. And we gotta say, after poking around openAlbany today, it appears to be an encouraging start.
A few that caught our eye on the first pass...
The crime map will probably end up being one of the most popular datasets on the site. The set includes incidents from the past 90 days. And while it includes a number of caveats, it does provide an ease of use and level of detail way beyond previous efforts.
The map also highlights some of the complications with publicly sharing this type of data. For example: The incidents are pegged to blocks rather than specific addresses in order to protect the identity of crime victims.
If anything, the crime data could end up best being used a way for people to get a sense of crime trends in their neighborhood, rather info about specific incidents.
Parking is ongoing issue in Albany, and parking tickets have been a source of a drama in the past. So the parking ticket dataset might offer some interesting possibilities for tracking aspects of this issue.
Property tax assessments and payments
Another ongoing issue in Albany is property taxes -- how much, who's paying, and who's not paying. With the data available -- for assessments and payments -- it'll be interesting to see if anyone from outside city government can create new/different angles on the issue.
Stuff that should have been easily accessible
If anything, the website provides an easy platform for the city to share stuff that should have been easily accessible already, like maps for neighborhood associations and APD beat maps.
An tiny example of how this makes things better: To create the map of how Albany wards voted on the casino amendment, we needed a certain type of geographical information file to generate the map. But we couldn't find one for the newest set of ward lines. So we had to email someone at city hall for it. Our request was answered promptly and very helpfully. But it was one of those things where everyone spent time that could have been saved. And now the ward lines are online at openAlbany, downloadable in formats for making maps.
The platform's pretty good
A bit of nerdiness with effects for everyone: It appears that Albany is using the same Socrata platform that the state uses for Open New York. Based on our experience with Open New York, the platform works pretty well from a user perspective. And it makes it relatively easy to sort, filter, and download data in a variety of formats.
The fact that this data is easy to download in different formats is very important. Public data is often locked up in formats such as pdf, which like freezing something in a block of ice, accessible only by chipping it out later.
The real test of openAlbany will how it holds up over years. Does the city keep adding data? Are the datasets complete and free of (too many) errors? Will people outside of city government make use of the data in helpful ways?
But as we've said before, meaningful access to public data is becoming a new civil right in the information age. And openAlbany appears to be a start in the right direction.
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