Why Portland Needs Open Data
Catherine Nikolovski

Why Portland’s Comprehensive Plan Cannot Succeed Without Open Data

Dear Mayor and Commissioners,

Open Data will not be successful unless it is an attitude that permeates the City. The comprehensive plan, and Policy 2.11 unamended, is the ideal place to encourage innovative, open, and transparent partnerships between the City and its communities, which without Open Data will not be possible.

I’ve worked in cities worldwide on Open Data. I’ve helped communities in informal settlements to collect land use data throughout the Global South. This data fosters a culture of transparency and accountability around planning and development. Open Data transforms communities. Through Open Data we increase the accountability of city governments and ultimately improve lives. Unfortunately, better public service data currently exists for slums of Lagos, Nigeria than Portland, Oregon.

Throughout the comprehensive plan, many goals and policies overlap Open Data: intergovernmental coordination (Policy 1.15), community involvement as partnership (Goal 2.A), transparency and accountability (Goal 2.D), strong civic infrastructure (Goal 2.G), two-way channels of communication (Policy 2.8), community participation in data collection (Policy 2.10), verifying data (Policy 2.25), tools for effective participation (Policy 2.39), small business development (Policy 6.9), business innovation (Policy 6.10), sharing economy (Policy 6.11), public service coordination (Policy 8.8), internal coordination (Policy 8.9), coordination (Policy 8.46), Vision Zero (Goal 9.A, as amended), performance measures (Policy 9.48), and innumerable others. People may not think of these policies and goals as Open Data. But Open Data will help us accomplish them.

Take Goal 2.D, for example, Transparency and Accountability. The City makes many land use decisions using data (maps, testimonials, surveys, etc.). In drafting the comprehensive plan, we have seen how data is fundamental to the process. Each of the testimonials, amendments, and zoning changes — these are all data. To make the City transparent and accountable in this process, this data must be public and usable. Without opening data around land use decisions, the City cannot be transparent. Without sharing data in a format usable by software, communities cannot hold the City accountable.

Portland Open Data Part 1

The first implementation of Open Data for Portland was CivicApps.org. CivicApps was an innovative way to share public data. Students, technologists, and activists visited CivicApps.org to use Portland data. Users commented from North Carolina, Massachusetts, and even France.

Unfortunately, we can also look at CivicApps to see what Open Data is not. The data is stale. It was last updated since 2014. Most of the communication was one-way, the City rarely responded to comments. If users found errors, there was no way to correct them.

Open Data will help the City be transparent and accountable. It will encourage tools for effective participation. Open Data can create two-way channels of communication and improve internal coordination. To do these, we need to understand Open Data as a process, not a one-time and one-way publication of data.

Vision Zero and Open Data

We can look at Vision Zero to help understand what Open Data means. At first, the idea of needing a Vision Zero policy may seem frivolous. Of course, you may say, the City does not design roads, set transportation policy, or set enforcement priorities with the goal of increasing traffic fatalities. But then, why do we need Vision Zero?

We need Vision Zero to articulate our priorities within transportation policies and practices. A transportation engineer does not design a street to kill people, but it happens. Vision Zero prompts an engineer to think “how may this design result in a fatality?”, where she otherwise may not. Vision Zero requires “a comprehensive approach”, “a strategic planning effort”, and “collaboration from a wide range of partners”. Vision Zero is a process. It cannot be successful unless every person within our transportation system absorbs the mentality.

The amended Open Data policy, amendment P11, reads:

Where appropriate, encourage publication, accessibility and wide-spread sharing of data collected and generated by the City.”

Can you imagine if our Vision Zero goal was similarly worded?

Where appropriate, encourage planners and engineers to design roads that minimize fatalities on roads maintained by the City.”

We could not achieve Vision Zero by trying to reduce fatalities where appropriate. We’ve experienced this over the last several decades and seen how it has failed our community. It is misguided to expect the same for Open Data. Open Data is not a one-time initiative. It is an ethos the City must adopt, one of transparency, openness, and accountability.

Though it may seem foolish to compare Open Data to Vision Zero, Open Data can improve and even save lives. Digital tools will be as important as physical infrastructure in 2035, when this comprehensive plan expires. We will not succeed by setting our targets low, publishing data only where appropriate.

There are already cities partnering with technology companies using Open Data to accomplish Vision Zero, Portland could be next.

Transparency and Accountability

Two stated goals of the comprehensive plan, transparency and accountability, keep appearing. These two ideas encompass Open Data.

Transparency is publishing all information used in land use and planning decisions. This includes source data, maps, databases, and community feedback or public commentary. The City is already accomplishing a lot around transparency. We’ve experienced this transparency during the comprehensive plan update. But Open Data is not just publishing data, that is only half of it. Open Data is a conversation, a partnership.

Accountability is the harder part of Open Data. There are two sides to accountability in Open Data. Most importantly, the city must release data in a way the community can use it, analogous to how the City used it. Citizens must be able to use similar tools as the City to hold them accountable. This requires data released in a timely, machine-readable, and documented manner.

Imagine I send the IRS my income data in a language of my own invention. This would prevent them from calculating my taxes. How could I expect them to hold me accountable for my taxes? I wouldn’t (and I could expect an audit later). If the City shares data in proprietary or non-machine readable formats, the citizens are hamstrung in holding the City accountable.

Secondly, the City must have mechanisms to respond to citizen feedback from that data. This feedback could include errors in the data, a contention with data analysis results, or general comments. Open Data is a two-way street where the City provides transparent information and citizens provide accountability.

Open Data must be a ubiquitous goal, not something done after-the-fact, when appropriate, and as a one-way distribution.

Portland Open Data Part 2

Mayor and commissioners, we all strive for a transparent and accountable City. We want to foster increased community participation, better civic infrastructure, and improved internal coordination. We need to save lives and achieve Vision Zero. None of this can happen without Open Data.

Citizens, non-profits, small businesses, and advocates need access to public data. The City uses data to make land use and planning decisions and communities should be able to do the same. We want to use this data to create tools for community participation, to understand traffic fatalities, and to hold government officials accountable. Open Data can help communities improve equity, deepen our understanding of underrepresented groups, and learn new ways to love Portland.

Please retain Policy 2.11, the Open Data policy, as originally drafted.


Joe Hand