Building Products and Programs Based on User Feedback

by Bob Gradeck

April 20, 2016

At our first Property Data User Group meeting, we learned quite a bit about how we could improve the user experience for our current and prospective data users. We’re finding these User Group meetings invaluable for providing structure to our community engagement efforts, and user feedback to our product and program development efforts.

Here are just three things we’ve been working on since the meeting, and are excited to be able to share them with you.

1. Property Information Extractor

At the meeting, users mentioned that it was difficult to extract data from Allegheny County’s property assessment database for a single City of Pittsburgh neighborhood. The database contains over 550,000 records, and requires GIS mapping skills to be able to join the data to a parcel layer, and pull a subset of data for a particular neighborhood. This process at best takes ten minutes for experienced data users. Fortunately for us, our staff were able to “fork” an open source property data downloading tool developed by Chris Whong in New York City (try the original version here).

We’re calling our version of this tool the Property Information Extractor. It allows you to pull assessment data by neighborhood, municipality, or even for a user-defined area using some of the embedded drawing tools. Since the assessment data contains many different fields, users also have the ability to select only those they want to include. The result of this query can be exported in several different formats (CSV, GeoJSON, Shapefile), or opened directly within CartoDB, which offers a no-cost pricing tier for their Web-based mapping tools.

Property Information Extractor
Property Information Extractor

2. Dataset “Landing Page” Design Improvements

Users also felt we could work to improve the usability of the open data portal’s “landing page” for each dataset. Feedback was clear – it would help to have an interactive data visualization and data download button featured prominently on the landing page for each dataset. Our open data portal consultants worked hard to enable both of these features. You’ll start to see more and more visualizations appear with each of the datasets  on the data portal this spring, but would love to show you the new look for our site on the Property Sales and Crash data landing pages.

Old & New page design

3. “Data 101” Training with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

At the User Group meeting, we also heard that many of our attendees are excited about the potential for using data, but really don’t know where to start. We’re excited to partner with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh on a “Data 101” training series designed to build information literacy, mapping, and data visualization skills for people looking to get started in using data, or more-experienced users looking to brush-up on their skills. The training sessions will be offered monthly at one of the Library’s branches, and will be followed by ample time to practice what you’ve learned. The first class on data visualization will be offered on the morning of May 10 at the East Liberty Branch. Please visit the event Webpage, follow us on Twitter or sign-up for our e-mail newsletter for more details.


These examples show the importance of listening to our users.

  • The Data User Group framework provides structure to our community engagement efforts, ensures that we hear from as many of our users as possible, enables us to test ideas on the fly, and allows them to build relationships with one another.
  • Open source software also provides great value to our work. We can adopt tools developed in other cities without having to build them all ourselves, as the Parcel Information Extractor example shows.
  • The value of the agile approach we’ve taken to improving the usability of our product can be seen in our improvements to the dataset landing page. We listened to our users, observed how they interacted with the site, and made iterative and incremental improvements to the product based on this feedback.
  • Our model of working in partnership with other organizations and institutions as a data intermediary enables us to extend our capacity to provide you with additional  programs and services, as the Data 101 training collaboration with the Carnegie Library illustrates.