The Open City
What do you get when you mix open data from restaurant inspections, recycling capture rates, and blocked bike lanes? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
New York City is one of nearly 100 U.S. cities with an open data portal — a web portal where people can find, use, and share data collected by city agencies that provide public infrastructure and services. While publishing city data is an important first step in creating a healthy civic data ecosystem, how do people and organizations actually make sense and use of this information in ways that have real impact?
NYC Open Data Week is about how data can come to life as a tool for communities across the City in forms both practical and provocative. Here’s a snapshot of what we gleaned from our participation in NYC Open Data Week events this year, and how Stae, as a real-time open data portal, helped make the City’s data more accessible and fun to build with.
#1. NYC School of Data
Theme: Privacy and Open Data in the Public Realm
What We Shared: With the emergence of “smart” sensor technologies and new data-capturing projects being piloted in NYC and elsewhere, we organized a panel of technologists and urbanists to tackle the question of how this kind of data is recorded, shared, and acted upon — and, crucially, by whom. Georgia Bullen, Executive Director of Simply Secure, talked about good community engagement and planning practices that are fundamental to a healthy, open society. Georgia’s view underscored the need for the work by Shin-pei Tsay at Gehl Institute, who emphasized the importance of creating tools for people to measure their own communities as a way to inform and partner with local governments. Numina’s Solutions Engineer, Jennifer Ding, shared how her company’s sensors capture mid-block crossings as data points intended to drive design and safety conversations, not law enforcement. She also shared Numina’s approach to selecting their clients, partnering mostly VisionZero initiatives over police departments.
What We Learned: Starting with local objectives is the best way to design systems of observation. If the request to collect information comes from a community wanting to know more about itself, then this is more like observation as empowerment—not surveillance. (View the full video of the panel here.)
#2. Data x Design Exhibition
Theme: NYC Blocked Bike Lanes
What We Shared: Everyday across NYC, a swell of cyclists hit the streets (approximately 450,000 bike trips daily!). Over the past five years, the city has responded by creating over 300 miles of bike lanes. But with the spike of cycling, has also come the rise of online shopping and a flux of freight delivery. This confluence has turned bike lanes into an increasingly contested space between cyclists and deliverers. Rather than a seamless, protected path, bike lanes have become ad-hoc unloading zones, routing cyclists into car traffic to avoid double-parked vehicles and other obstructions. How might NYC’s open data reflect this everyday reality and what can we learn from other public data sets about how our streets can be better shared?
For the Data Through Design Exhibition as part of NYC Open Data Week, Crystal Penalosa, Stae’s Community Engineer and Melissa De la Cruz, Researcher at Bits and Atoms, collaborated to create an immersive jammed NYC bike lane (read more about their research here). On a 6’ x 24’ painted gravel strip, this exhibition physically mapped on a human scale the past, present, and future projections of the city’s bike lanes. Pulling NYC’s open data for bike lane coverage, parking violations, as well as 311 service requests and tweets for blocked bike lanes, visitors of the exhibit had the opportunity to view this data, and to test how boxes, potholes, opened car doors, and more elements intervened in the path of cyclers.
What We Learned: As the city evolves and new mobility technologies emerge, how can safe, consistent access to bike lanes continue to be part of the discussion? And how might data help cyclists express their point of view?
#3. LYLAS Environmental Justice Hackathon
Themes: Zero Waste, Food Justice, Air Quality, Sustainable Living
What We Shared: How might we bring more diverse perspectives to address climate change at local, even personal levels? LYLAS (a feminist tech community) organized a one-day hackathon as part of NYC’s Open Data Week, bringing together software engineers, green businesses, city agencies, and more to build with the City’s environmental data. Participants were split into eight competing teams and given eight hours to create solutions to enhance how we might improve air quality, food justice, sustainable energy, and waste treatment. All NYC open data — from the tree census to an ozone timeline— were standardized and made accessible via API on Stae.
What We Learned:
To tackle how we might improve air quality and reduce the disparity in pollutant levels across neighborhoods, one team created “Haze,” an app for anyone to report location-based air quality data as a way to supplement to the City’s environmental sensors. Using Haze (or simply tweeting with the #hazeNYC hashtag) citizens concerned about air quality and its impact on their local communities can report event-based sources of pollution such as traffic, construction, and extreme weather, and add both qualitative and quantitative indicators. This allows government agencies, public health institutions, and community organizations to gather finer-grain, temporal and location-based data.
Overall, NYC Open Data Week shined a spotlight on how people and communities can make practical use of open data to better understand and improve their physical environment and the policies governing them. The ability for people to access, create, and build with open data are fundamental to ensuring a collaborative city — one where people use data and technology prioritize the lived experience over top-down, technocratic governance.
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