2017 Year in Review

by Bob Gradeck

January 31, 2018

Here’s a look back at 2017. It has been great to work with so many great partners, and look forward to helping you find and use data in 2018.

New Website Experience Goes Live

In 2017, the Regional Data Center expanded our products and services to include data guides, tools, events, and our bi-weekly newsletter. The design of our previous Website did not enable our users to easily discover the new offerings. To improve our site, we received help from Patrick Fulton, a user experience expert. He helped to develop a user experience strategy for the Website. It called for us to streamline, simplify, prioritize content, and focus on the needs of a few key audiences. Our team then used the design recommendations to build the new site and content in-house. The new site was launched in August and makes it easier for people to find many of the tools and resources previously buried on our site. Read more about our design process in our blog.

Data Use Grows

2017 marked the second full year of the Regional Data Center’s open data portal. The Website now hosts 264 datasets from 17 publishers, up from 165 datasets and 10 data publishers in December, 2016. Over 27,000 users accessed data through the open data portal in 2017 compared to 16,000 in 2016, as the table below shows. You can learn more about how a few of our data users have been improving our community with data in the City’s recent open data report.

2016-17 Performance Measures

Performance Measure 2016 2017
Users 16,262 27,775
Sessions 36,789 64,071
Pageviews 183,975 261,544

Since the launch of the open data portal in 2015, Allegheny County property assessment data has been the most-popular dataset in terms of pageviews. In all, half of the top ten datasets since launch are property data records. These datasets include tax liens, sales transactions, sheriff sales, and building permits. Additional datasets in the top 10 include County air quality monitoring and crash data, and from the City, 311 requests, arrests and crime incidents. The full list of datasets and their use statistics appears on the “dataset” tab of our performance management dashboard.

Integrated Property Data Dashboard Launches

The Regional Data Center built a Property Dashboard enabling people to learn more about property conditions in Allegheny County. The dashboard integrates data from multiple data sources including County datasets such as property assessment, tax liens, property sales, and foreclosures. City data featured on the tool includes permits, tax abatements, and property tax delinquency. In addition to presenting a profile of the data, the tool also provides users with the ability to visualize property data and map a property owner’s portfolio. The tool makes use of APIs to incorporate real-time data feeds from the open data portal, and was built in-house by Regional Data Center staff. The Dashboard is designed to incorporate data from municipalities in addition to the City of Pittsburgh, and will present an important value proposition for municipal publishers. Over the next several months, we’ll be improving the product to incorporate feedback from initial users.

Burgh’s Eye View Improvements

The Regional Data Center has also supported the City of Pittsburgh as the City has made more improvements to its Burgh’s Eye Tool. Burgh’s Eye View presents many different City datasets to both public and internal City users. While the interface was built by City staff, the Regional Data Center supports the City by managing the public data behind Burgh’s Eye View. New features launched in 2017 included a parcel data viewer, a version of the tool presenting data on public facilities and other infrastructure, and the ability to produce heat maps of some datasets.

Over 30 Key Health Datasets and Guides Released

In April, with the help of the Regional Data Center, Allegheny County’s Health Department released 32 datasets related to cardiovascular disease and related social determinants of health on the Regional Data Center’s open data portal through its Data Across Sectors for Health (DASH) project. This local effort is supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as part of their national initiative aiming to develop, implement, and evaluate multi-sector health data sharing projects. Data available through DASH not only relates to cardiovascular disease, but a wide variety of issues impacting public health, including human services, economic development, healthcare, and transportation. The Regional Data Center drafted a data guide for each of the datasets released, participated in monthly DASH data sharing meetings, and also organized a DASH data hack night in collaboration with Code for Pittsburgh.

Automating Data Publishing Processes

Automated publication of data has remained a priority of the Regional Data Center. 37 datasets are now published through automated processes, with some datasets refreshed several times per hour. This number does not include the 100 datasets directly harvested from the County and City GIS departments. Tax liens, one of the most-popular datasets in the open data portal, illustrates the value of developing automated repository  Tax lien data required significant time to prepare, as the code had to account for many different filings for new liens, satisfied liens, renewed liens, and incorrect filings. Regional Data Center staff processed three million tax lien records from the past twenty years to present an accurate picture of the number of liens on a property. This data updates each month, and is a critical dataset for organizations seeking to address vacant and abandoned property in Allegheny County.

Data Literacy Training

The Regional Data Center retooled its Data 101 introduction to data literacy training series in collaboration with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Based on our experience with our initial Data 101 rollout, we realized that the paper based classes engaged users and taught skills more-effectively than our computer-based courses. With support from Neighborhood Allies, the Regional Data Center and Carnegie Library developed and pilot-tested three new paper-based courses (“What is Data?” “Introduction to Mapping” and “Introduction to Data Visualization”), and refined its existing “Data Stories” classes. In early 2018, a toolkit containing all class materials and facilitators guide will be openly shared. In addition to Data 101, the Regional Data Center also pilot-tested a “Learning Circle” model where it took a cohort of people interested in using data for community development for a hands-on four-lesson training session.  

Civic Technology and Open Data Roundtable

The Regional Data Center convened representatives from civic technology and open data organizations and institutions in monthly “Civic Technology and Open Data Roundtable” meetings. Representatives from civic technology, student, and governmental organizations (City and County), libraries, and the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center participated in the meetings. These meetings were used to plan events, initiatives, and activities designed to build and strengthen our local civic technology and open data ecosystem. A grant from the MacArthur Foundation managed through Living Cities was was used to support event expenses. Through this effort, we have strengthened collaboration between organizations through events, helped participating organizations develop and implement a leadership transition strategy, document relationships through an ecosystem mapping exercise, and launched a shared bi-weekly newsletter featuring activity from multiple organizations. In 2018, the Regional Data Center will continue to support civic technology organizations through the Roundtable.

Special Events

The Regional Data Center and members of the roundtable partnered on a number of events in 2017. In the spring, we partnered with many of our librarian friends on a Data Rescue event, where participants were able to join with volunteers from around the U.S. to describe and archive federal data. We also organized a fun social event for students at our local universities om October where they could get to know one another and share their work. Finally, the Carnegie Library and the Regional Data Center once again held its annual Data Day celebration at the Main Library in Oakland. At Data Day, over 150 people learned about redistricting, Census 2020, data privacy, and a number of other topics through hands-on activities.

Civic Switchboard Launches

The University Library System at the University of Pittsburgh, in partnership with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center, and the Urban Institute, which supports and coordinates the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, will develop the capacity of public and academic libraries to serve as key partners in local open civic data ecosystems through a two-year $225,000 grant. The Civic Switchboard project’s primary output will be a guide and toolkit to help public and academic libraries: identify local needs and contexts around open civic data; consider roles, opportunities, practices, and governance in the civic data ecosystem; anticipate and address common challenges; measure local civic open data health and capacity; and learn from examples of successful civic data partnerships.

New Publishers

Publisher growth has happened more-slowly than initially expected. Many prospective publishers need help from us in evaluating and preparing data for publication, and we have taken advantage of opportunities to automate data publishing processes for key datasets. We have also noticed that unless sharing data is an organizational mandate, the incentive to publish additional data may fade over time. We believe there is opportunity to organize publisher recruitment around key value propositions and use cases. In some situations, being able to incorporate data into tools (as will be the case with the Regional Data Center’s Property Dashboard) may prove an attractive incentive to share data. In other cases, we may focus on a particular issue such as land conservation or affordable housing to guide our outreach efforts in pursuit of new data.

Classroom Engagement

The Regional Data Center has made a positive impact on the University of Pittsburgh and other secondary and postsecondary educational institutions in the region. Over 37 classes have been using data from the Regional Data Center in 2017, and the Center has been directly engaged with student projects and has provided support to six student organizations through the Roundtable. WPRDC also provides data to support faculty research and the project supports the University’s Community Engagement Center efforts through writing guides for students and faculty, data collection on community assets, supervising student workers in target communities, and providing technical assistance to Engagement Center organizers.

Establishing National Connections

We strongly feel that it’s important to learn from the experiences of peers in other cities to improve the value of our work. One of the primary ways we learn from other cities is participation in networks of practice, and by attending conferences . Conferences attended in 2017 include the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership partner meetings, What Works Cities, csv; conf, Data Smart Cities, Metrolab, the Digital Library Forum, Living Cities’ “Civic Tech and Data Collaborative Convening,” Drexel University’s Urban Health Collaborative, and the Personal Democracy Forum 2017. We also share work with others, and collaborated with the Sunlight Foundation to make our Data User Group meeting format the subject of their first tactical data engagement playbook.


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