Open Data Good for Smaller Cities: Analyst

Palo Alto could benefit from opening its public data to developers and others.

Crunching massive datasets for innovative ideas about city services isn’t the sole providence of megalopolises with tons of cash to burn on expensive data analysis. As smaller cities such as Palo Alto are demonstrating, it’s entirely possible to release datasets online and encourage developers to create apps that better community life.

Palo Alto, of course, is something of a special case: despite its relatively small size (population 65,000), the city serves as the headquarters for many of the world’s most famous tech firms. Many of its citizens are incredibly well versed in using data to refine and improve things around them. Palo Alto’s first datasets, released publicly via its Open Data Platform initiative, included everything from pavement condition ratings and park locations to basic utility and rainfall data.

Any developers interested in working with that data can leverage Palo Alto’s API, which relies on a RESTful interface and returns data in a JSON format (currently the only supported return type). Apps developed as part of the initiative include Palo Alto StreetViewer, optimized for browsers including Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer 9.

Jennifer Belissent, an analyst with Forrester, suggested in a recent corporate blog posting that the benefits of Palo Alto’s data initiative could extend to other municipalities, as well. Specifically, opening up data streams could help enable the “citizen-sourcing” of new city services, improve the city’s perception to the overall world, boost the cost-efficiency of responding to public record requests, and extend “the eyes and ears of the city” by discovering new patterns in data.

But not all cities are necessarily as open as Palo Alto in distributing datasets to the broader community. “For one, data comes from city departments that can be reluctant to participate,” she wrote. “However, as Palo Alto experienced, executive support is critical. If the city manager and city council members are onboard, departmental support is more likely to follow.”

Cities’ legal departments could also throw down roadblocks, she added, and lack of budget is another hindrance. “In the case of Palo Alto, the city needed a vendor with a pay-as-you-grow model and found that in Junar, a cloud-based open data platform provider,” she wrote. The latter features tiered purchase plans that start at a few thousand dollars.

Some bigger cities are using data for another, perhaps less-user-friendly purpose: crime prevention. New York City recently announced a partnership with Microsoft on an analytics platform that can collect and analyze public-safety data in real time, with an eye toward helping predict potential threats.

Public data, of course, can also serve developers well in another sense: by giving them an unfamiliar dataset on which to test their software before placing it into production, which can help highlight any flaws in their coding.


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