Regional Data Center 2016 Year in Review

by Bob Gradeck

January 12, 2017

On October 15, 2015, we went live with the data portal. This document gives us a chance to reflect back on a busy first year + 2 ½ months. In a followup blog post, we’ll take a look ahead at what to expect in 2017.

Open Data Portal Use

Use of the open data portal has doubled since the beginning of 2016, and we experienced our highest monthly use of the site in November, when over 2,000 users accessed the data portal. The number of datasets available on the site has also doubled since launch, with over 160 now available. The project has been featured in 58 news stories, and the Regional Data Center’s staff have participated in 190 outreach meetings, presentations, and events that have reached 3,000 attendees. These and many other indicators are included in our performance management framework, and publicly available on our dashboard.

Open Data Portal Improvements

Since launch of the open data portal in October, 2015, we have been working with its consultants at OpenGov to improve the user experience and performance of the Regional Data Center’s open data portal. The selection of open source software (CKAN) to power our open data portal enables us to improve the quality of the product based on the needs of our users. Improvements made in the past year include the addition of data visualizations on dataset landing pages, making the data catalog available on the Federal government’s open data portal at, and enabling people to make data requests through the open data portal.

Open Data Portal Automating Data Publishing

The Regional Data Center developed a library of code enabling the efficient and automated publication of data. We did this in collaboration with Ben Smithgall, one of the the former City of Pittsburgh Code for America fellows. The Regional Data Center now publishes 15 datasets in an automated fashion, with some of the data updating as often as every hour. In addition to these 15 datasets, we continue to harvest over 40 geographic datasets from the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County’s GIS portal every week. For more details, please see our blog post.

New Tools to Make Data More-Accessible

Several tools have also been built using data from the open data portal. In response to user feedback, the Regional Data Center launched the Parcel Information Extractor, a tool that enables users to export assessment data for an individual municipality or neighborhood. The Regional Data Center also supported the City of Pittsburgh in the launch of Burgh’s Eye View, a tool allowing City staff and residents to obtain crime, 311, code violation, and city facility information about their neighborhood.

User Guides Add Context to Data

Data without context makes the data less-useful. The Regional Data Center has provided context to data by improving data documentation through user guides. The Regional Data Center’s user guides are designed to provide data users a sense of the purpose for which the data was collected, the business processes, software, and applicable standards involved, suggested applications for the data (and how to use it), and other details that will help others make responsible use of the data. This year we released a user guide for the 311 non-emergency complaint data, and also published a guide to Crime, Courts, and corrections in Pittsburgh to coincide with the City joining over 50 other communities in the National Police Data Initiative.

New Publishers

Since summer, 2016, nine additional organizations have signed-on to become publishers through the Regional Data Center. Our new publishers include the  Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Port Authority of Allegheny County, Pittsburgh Parking Authority, Bike Pittsburgh, Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, Healthy Ride, Envision Downtown, Green Building Alliance, and Baldwin Borough. To support our publishers, we have developed a “publisher’s guide” and training materials containing information about establishing publishing priorities, protecting privacy, documenting data, preparing data for publication and loading data to the open data portal.

Leveraging University Expertise in Digital Humanities

The Regional Data Center has also continued to leverage the expertise of data management and digital humanities professionals at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Information Sciences and the University Library System. In 2016, we held our first “privacy roundtable” where we invited experts to offer the City of Pittsburgh advice in protecting the privacy of people making a 311 non-emergency request while allowing for the release of location-specific data. These recommendations have been adopted by the City. The Hillman Library has also partnered with the  Regional Data Center to develop a problem scoping activity enabling organizations to identify and articulate opportunities for using data and technology.

Data User Groups

To provide a mechanism for shared, topical conversation about data, the Regional Data Center established a series of data user group meetings. User group meetings are open to all, and provide people with an opportunity to build relationships with one another, share what they’ve learned about data, contribute to data user guides, identify opportunities to adopt data standards and improve data quality, discuss new data publication priorities, and collaborate on new projects. We held meetings on a number of topics, including environmental justice, air quality, water resources, and property data.

Data 101 Data Literacy Workshops

At the Regional Data Center’s first property data user group meeting in March, 2016, we learned that there were a lot of people interested in using data that weren’t sure about where to start. There were not many learning opportunities designed for people working with data for the first time. To build an inclusive data community, the Regional Data Center and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh co-developed “Data 101,” a workshop series designed for people looking to get started on their journey toward data literacy. To date, we have developed and delivered four workshops in the Data 101 series with the Carnegie Library. The first provided participants with an introduction to data visualization, and the second addressed storytelling with data. Both of these workshops used only paper and markers. We incorporated computers into the next two workshops covering mapping and making charts and graphs using spreadsheets. Since the first four Data 101 workshops were held, we subsequently offered the workshops to City and County staff, and also through the Allegheny County Library Association. We received a grant from Neighborhood Allies to develop a toolkit for offering Data 101 in public libraries, and will also be developing additional workshops in the series.

Data Day

On October 22, the University Center for Social and Urban Research partnered with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh to hold Data Day at the Library’s Main branch in Oakland. Data Day was a day long – drop in event open to everybody highlighting the use of data within the community. We were happy to welcome over 150 participants to our day of hands-on activities and demonstrations spread over ten interactive tables located throughout the Library’s gallery space. Station leaders were recruited from the community, and each had something unique to offer. In some of the activities, this meant making a data visualization on a postcard using markers, flipping through century-old Sanborn and Hopkins neighborhood map books, getting their hands on a drone, or exploring the Southwestern Pennsylvania Community Profiles and the Regional Data Center’s Websites as part of a data scavenger hunt. See more in page 7 of the Pittsburgh Economic Quarterly.

Fostering Data Use in the Classroom

One of our goals is to connect with the educational community and support their use of data. At least 30 classes in local high schools and higher education institutions have incorporated local open data in the classroom. We have also been directly involved in the classroom through a number of guest lectures and workshops, and are also supporting the work of student organizations like the Students for Urban Data Systems at Carnegie Mellon and Pitt’s Computer Science Club through direct engagement and support for events.

Supporting Civic Technology

The Regional Data Center has continued to support civic technology in the region. We worked directly with students on projects and workshops at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, and have assisted the Code for America Brigade “Open Pittsburgh” in its projects and events, including a “crash data hack night” offered in partnership with Allegheny County the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Traffic 21 at Carnegie Mellon, and Bike Pittsburgh. Staff have continued to serve on the Steel City Codefest planning committee, and the Regional Data Center recently kicked-off a cross-city project to develop the community’s civic technology ecosystem. The project will support events, organizational development activities, and an ecosystem mapping effort through this $10,000 grant funded by the MacArthur Foundation and managed by Living Cities, the Urban Institute, and Code for America.

National Connections

Interest in our approach is strong. Since launch, we’ve talked to people from 18 different cities in the U.S. about our model for open data, and we participate as a partner in the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, a peer network of over 30 cities involved in the work of a data intermediary. Project partners at the City and County also participate in the Civic Analytics Network, a network of leading Chief Data Officers supported by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School. The Regional Data Center also lends its expertise to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s new open data initiative, and sits on the Open Data Advisory Committee.

Coming Attractions

2016 was a busy year, and we feel as if we’ve established many processes and activities that we will build on in the coming years. We’re finalizing our 2017 agenda, and will soon share it with you in a forthcoming blog post. Stay tuned.