Posts about Data Openness
By publicly displaying the data, the bikeometer helps illustrate that a lot of people really do use bikes to get around.
Arlington bikeometer. The numbers aren't visible in the photo due to the camera scanning frequency. Photo by the author.
The bikeometer is on the Custis Trail in Rosslyn, near the Key Bridge. It's a busy crossroads for cycling traffic headed into DC from Virginia. Older bike counts have shown thousands of cyclists per day at the location.
As of about 11:30 am yesterday, after only a couple of hours running, the display already showed 768 cyclists.
The device is technically called an Eco-TOTEM. It reads an underground wire, which counts bikes rolling over the trail above and sends the data to a digital display.
Arlington's bikeometer is the first such device in the eastern US, although they're common on the west coast and in Europe.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Though many citizens understand the basic political process, it is often difficult to figure out how specific political decisions are made. Open data can make it easier to participate in local government simply by providing information.
Open data gives citizens access to information that can be used to improve government services and provide greater transparency. The underlying confusion and skepticism many people feel about government has given way to a nationwide open data movement, particularly here in DC. The variety of data tools available in the DC area demonstrates what is possible through open data.
There are a number of key websites that help local residents learn about and get engaged in their communities. But there are a few ways that local governments could further improve access to data.
Track the performance of DC agencies
At track.dc.gov, anyone can go online to track the performance of various agencies and access information about budgets, spending, news, and performance indicators. The website covers a number of agencies including the Commission on Arts & Humanities, the Board of Ethics & Government Accountability, Child and Family Services Agency, and the Department of Behavioral Health.
The site can be used as a tool for any citizen who wants to find out how the government is using public money. It serves as an additional point of financial oversight and allows each resident to become a government watchdog. Easy access to this plethora of information helps citizens to be informed of the inner workings of government.
Many agencies try to measure their performance internally. With this site, everyday people will not only gain a better understanding of where tax money is allocated, but do their own performance review by looking at how it is being spent, and where the gaps are.
See DC by the numbers
Those interested in city operational data can visit data.dc.gov to see figures for crime incidents, purchase orders, building permits, and housing code enforcement. In order to increase transparency, the city has published 493 data sets from various agencies that use city finances.
This website has a massive amount of information and makes it easily accessible. Without online access, anyone looking for this information would have to search through government archives, but with this tool, it's right at your fingertips.
Leveraging this information in a useful way requires some research and a bit of creativity, but the possibilities are endless for involved citizens. It becomes a matter of education so the public knows this information is available to them. Many people have used this data to create interesting visualizations of trends around the city, such as this map of every building permit in DC.
Through open data tools like this one, people can search through records and recognize problem areas that are growing worse or areas that have improved. But the most important step is encouraging everyday citizens and empowering them to take control of the information available to them, and in doing so, improve their neighborhoods and the community at large.
See how the public interacts with DC agencies
Though DC has made great strides towards making information available, there is still room for improvement. Sites like data.dc.gov and track.dc.gov are both tools that use information supplied by the government. As a result, it's a very one-sided solution to the open data dilemma.
The other important piece to open data is allowing citizens to communicate feedback to government agencies and evaluate their performance. In this vein, sites like grade.dc.gov collect feedback about particular agencies from social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.
The information is then analyzed and used to assign the agency a monthly letter grade based on how good or bad the reviews were. The results are two-fold: citizens have an avenue to report frustrating behavior, and agencies are made aware of problems.
Pushing open data even further
While the open data movement has made progress in DC, there is much more to be done. The government needs to make information more accessible and easier to sort through.
There also needs to be a greater emphasis on collaboration. The agencies must engage the people they are working for in order to figure out what changes need to be made. After that, it's up to citizens to educate themselves and use open data as a tool to hold the government more accountable.
WMATA planners have created a new ridership data visualization, a video that shows the volume at each station across the day:
This has a lot in common with Kenton Ngo's animated GIF that works basically the same way, but with less fine-grained time resolution:
WMATA planners created this before they saw Ngo's, planner Michael Eichler noted in an email. In each one, the circles are larger at times when more people are entering or exiting the station. The color shifts based on whether the traffic is people entering (pink), exiting (blue), or a mix (shades of purple in between).
The WMATA animation uses April 10, 2013, which was Metro's 4th highest ridership day ever. The PlanItMetro post says:
A combination of cherry blossom peak bloom and two sporting events ratcheted ridership up to 871,000 for the day, compared to an average weekday ridership of around 750,000. Note the high level of activity at the Smithsonian station all day long, and big dots that grow and shrink as the sports games begin and then end near Gallery Place and Navy Yard-Ballpark stations.You can access the data yourself to create your own visualizations here. If you make some, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll post some of the best.
Kenton Ngo made an animation showing how many people are entering or exiting Metro stations at each hour across the day.
Green circles show where people enter, and red where they exit. As you'd expect, green circles swell and then shrink at end-of-line and other busy suburban stations in the morning, while even larger red circles appear at the stations at major job centers. In the evening, the pattern reverses.
This is another way of visualizing the Metro station data which WMATA released last year. Matt Johnson used it to compute the busiest stations and the balance between stations. In 2009, Matt diagrammed the flows in each direction.
If you go to the large and interactive version on PlanItMetro, you can mouse over individual squares to see the date as a tooltip.
The darkest red days have the lowest ridership, the darkest green the highest. You can see high ridership events like President Obama's January
2005 2009 inauguration, the Stewart/Colbert rally in October 2010, Snowmageddon/Snowpocalypse in February 2010, and more.
Stepping back, it's clear how ridership is highest in April, June, and July, and the number of very high ridership days jumped significantly in 2008 but then has stayed flat or a bit down since. Weekend ridership has gotten lower in recent years, probably because of all the trackwork.
What do you notice?
The Sunlight Foundation has put together a great interactive map of contributions for the April 23 DC Council at-large special election.
Map by the Sunlight Foundation. Contribution data from the April 15 release
by the DC Office of Campaign Finance.
Their article by Ryan Sibley also shows many other interesting statistics, such as who got money from outside the region, the balance of corporate and individual contributions (Anita Bonds and Michael Brown got only about half individual contributions, while it's nearly 100% for Silverman), and more.
Sibley also notes that while DC's Office of Campaign Finance releases computer-readable data files with contribution information, some data is not in those files, like which candidate goes with a campaign committee. That's in PDFs, but PDF data isn't usable in mash-ups without human work.
What do you notice?
After open data advocates pointed out how ridiculous it is that private companies have a copyright on the only publicly-available versions of DC's laws, DC Council General Counsel David Zvenyach helped make a public domain version and posted it online.
Tom MacWright explained the problem last month. DC, like many governments, contracts with a company (in this case LexisNexis) to compile all of the laws and keep them updated as they change. They post the laws online, but with licenses that restrict your rights to reuse the information, even though it's the public law.
Rather than ignoring the problem or issuing silly legal threats against people who were digitizing the code without permission, Zvenyach worked with the advocates to create a version of the code free of these restrictions.
Mike Masnick writes at TechDirt:
Part of the issue was that the only digital copy of the code that they had was the one given to them by West, and it contained a variety of extraneous information that was West's IP, including West logos on each section of the law (representing many thousands of copies). Zvenyach had Joshua Tauberer come by and spend a day removing every bit of West IP from the document and quickly releasing a downloadable copy of the DC Code with a CC0 public domain license.Tom MacWright notes that this is just one step:
There are a few things that this isn't: it isn't the official copy of the code, and lawyers would be ill-advised to cite it alone. It isn't up-to-dateWhat can people do with an open source set of DC laws? We can think of a lot of things, but the best part is when people do things we don't think of. Some commenters on MacWright's post wondered why this matters; can't you just find the code on the existing website? Yes, you can't link directly to a part of the code, and can only download pieces in Microsoft Word, but so what?
— the council is fast-moving and this is just a snapshot. In time we'll fix these problems too.
So what is all the ways someone could build better tools to make it easier to find the laws. Someone already made a tool that's for some purposes better than the official site. Or people could write automated programs to compare the laws on some topics, like yielding to pedestrians, to those in other states. (Hey, that would be a great idea! Has someone done that yet?)
Do you have ideas or want to implement some? MacWright is organizing a hackathon on Sunday. If you build something neat with the code, let us know and we'll show it off here.
Say you're moving to the area, have a job, and want to find places with good transit to work. How do you figure it out? A lot of people just look at the Metro map and don't consider other modes, but a new service called AutNo is trying to help people locate near transit.
This is actually a problem I hear often. A family friend moved to DC a couple of years ago, for a job at PriceWaterhouseCoopers in Tysons. The Silver Line was still a few years off, but he wanted to live in a vibrant, urban neighborhood. Where should he go?
The bus maps are daunting to decipher. It took me a couple of hours to really puzzle through the combinations and cross-reference it with my general knowledge of housing prices in various neighborhoods.
Boston-based AutNo tries to help by putting rental listings and trip planning together in one interface. You can view available rentals (it doesn't have places for sale, yet), click on one, and see transit directions to your office or another location you specify.
The about page reads:
AutNo is the first apartment search designed and developed specifically for people without cars. For the first time since the automobile was invented, the percentage of Americans who drive to school or work is on the decline. Gas prices are skyrocketing and automobile carbon emissions are contributing to global warming. Commuting and living without an automobile is the way of the future for many people. AutNo is dedicated to helping these people find apartments.It will also show driving routes to work, too, if you want them.
You can narrow down results by price and number of bedrooms. A future feature that would be helpful is to also let people restrict the searches by travel time. That way, you could say that you want a place under $2,000 a month that's no more than a 45 minute trip to work, or whatever.
Basically, combine this with Mapnificent:
And, at the risk of sounding like a broken record: this is why open data is valuable. A transit agency might build a great app, but they're never going to build a mash-up of real estate data and transit data. When it's easy to put transit routing into an app, you not only can build apps that give people transit routing, but tools and apps that combine transit routing with almost anything else.
Update: I hadn't know it, but WalkScore actually has this exact Mapnificent-style feature. You can filter apartment listings by transit distance to a point:
However, when you click on an apartment, WalkScore does not show you the transit routing with trains and buses you would take, while AutNo does. Without that information, people won't as easily learn which buses might work best for them or be able to judge whether a location is really likely as acessible from transit as the system says.
It would be best to have both at once on the same site; as it is now, I'd recommend that people use a combination of both tools for their search.
There's a deep, persistent, and crippling problem with the laws of DC: you can't download a copy.
Due to a weak contract and a variety of legal techniques, it's not possible to create better ways to read the law or download it for offline access, or even to try to do better than the crummy online portal that serves as its official source.
It also means that it's hard to discuss legal matters online, since you can't link to specific laws
How the law became scarce
How did this happen? It's a tricky answer of access, ownership, and contracts.
The DC Council writes and publishes bills, which are additions and subtractions to the law itself. The law is compiled by a contractor
The contractor publishes a few different versions of the "compiled law," each of which with restrictions:
- The online portal has a "browsewrap" restriction against copying in full.
- The CD they publish has a "clickwrap" restriction against copying at all.
- Even the printed version has a registered copyright by the Council itself.
Unfortunately, courts have upheld these types of restrictions in the CD and website Terms of Service. They get further support from the wire fraud statute, which prosecutors used in the Aaron Swartz case to escalate charges to felonies. And in all of these versions, the contractor tries to claim copyright through compilation copyright and additional content like citations and prefaces.
In the face of these strong guards against freeing the law, the most reasonable avenue for creating a freely-accessible copy is buying and scanning the printed copies, which is exactly what some citizens are starting to do.
Why this matters
This has effects in many places. Advocacy organizations pushing for changes can't reference laws by linking to them, so they have to copy & paste relevant sections and hope that people trust their versions. Of course, when laws go out of date, these copy and pasted guides stop working.
The goal of better educating the police about laws (like the rules of the road for bicyclists) is harder. Police can't have an offline copy of the law for quick access in the field, and the online version is near-useless on smartphones.
It's also locking the DC Council into using a contractor for this purpose. DC's contracts with WestLaw and LexisNexis aren't strong enough to force the contractors to provide them with a copyright-cleaned version, so the council itself doesn't have a compiled copy of the law that they can publish by themselves if they want to take this in-house.
This is a hard problem to unwrap and fix, and there are multiple efforts afoot.
Waldo Jaquith is building The State Decoded, an open-source system for storing and displaying state codes. It's already deployed with Virginia's laws. Public Resource.org is working on the long task of
Meanwhile, it'll be months or years until it's possible to download DC's laws onto your iPhone and clarify whether it is, indeed, legal to bike on a sidewalk (sometimes) or drink in public space (never).
- Fairfax's answer to neighbors' transit plans: Light rail, streetcars, and BRT
- The DC zoning update has already had triple the public input as the enormous 1958 zoning code. Enough is enough.
- Federal board wants "dignified," dull Southwest Waterfront
- MARC's chief engineer wants to allow bikes on some weekend trains
- Fruit stands abound within Paris Métro
- Downtown DC could have been more like L'Enfant Plaza
- Can you guess the Metro stations in this week's pictures?