Mayor Walsh opens up Boston’s online data

Boston Globe staff photo by John Tlumacki (metro)
Boston Globe staff photo by John Tlumacki (metro)

Mayor Martin J. Walsh signed an executive order Monday night to make the city’s data — information such as restaurant inspections, crime statistics, emergency response times, and liquor licenses — accessible to the public and published online for software developers to create web pages and mobile applications.

Boston has been slower than many other cities in opening up its data to public use, but now the city will join San Francisco, New York City, Seattle and other communities that have sought to spur innovation by putting vast amounts of data online.

Through a partnership with the review site Yelp, for example, restaurant-goers in San Francisco can see the health department’s latest score and reports for the location. In New York, developers took movie locations from a city database to build an app called Scene Near Me that can alert users when they check in near locations used in films like “Annie Hall,” “Ghostbusters,” and “Spider-Man.”

Advocates for big data applauded Walsh’s move. “By ordering city departments to open their data, lots more data collected by the city will be available either for commercial purposes or for study and analysis by academics or activists who might use data to ask questions about fairness and service deliver by the city,” said Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media.

Currently, the city has 342 open datasets – specific collections of data – published on the its open data platform. The order Monday will pave the way to open much more data to developers for public use.

Boston has already had some success with moving data online. Its app to allow users to report potholes, streetlight outages, and overflowing trash bins, Citizens Connect, helped the city issue a record number of 2,400 tickets for snow-shoveling violations during the Blizzard of 2013, when officials fielded more than 3,000 complaints.

One local company, Terrible Labs of Boston, used city data to create TicketZen, an app that allows users to scan and pay parking tickets with their Apple or Android mobile devices.

Monday morning, City Councilor at Large Michelle Wu filed a proposal to go before the council on Wednesday to creat an “open data ordinance” to require the city’s agencies and departments to make various datasets available. New York enacted its open data law in 2012, and currently has more than 1,100 datasets available, according to its website. San Francisco’s ordinance, the first in the nation, was passed in 2010.

Other cities such as Seattle, Lexington, Ky., and Madison, Wisc., have also put reams of data online.

“Boston has been doing a great job of making some data available and using that data to measure performance,” Wu said. “An open data ordinance would codify all that and shift the expectations of what would be available.”

“The days are over when we can simply be reactive and waiting for people to call City Hall or request information,” she said.

Zuckerman, while supportive of the city’s efforts, cautioned that privacy must remain a concern.

“The city is going to have to be careful to ensure that making data more accessible doesn’t end up violating the privacy of city residents,” he said.

Adam Friedman, a local civic technologist and web developer, said open data is a “movement that’s sweeping the nation and the world” and he praised Walsh for his actions. “Obviously, this is the new era of open government and he seems to be embracing it,” Friedman said.

Friedman cited a Globe investigation from 2006 that found that 911 police response times in Roxbury took 25 percent longer than the median response time citywide. “Having this response time data on a public dashboard would allow the public to monitor and pressure the city to shore up the discrepancy,” he said.

New York recently launched a site that uses public data to track 911 response times.

In his order, Walsh specified that the chief information officer, in consultation with other departments, develop a “protected data policy” that keeps personal information such as health data and educational records from becoming public.

Walsh’s order “further places an emphasis on the Department of Innovation and Technology to open up additional datasets and work with our partners in city agencies to make as open, free, and machine readable as much data as the city has available to it.” said Justin Holmes, the city’s chief information officer. Holmes said the order reaffirmed the commitment Walsh made to transparency in his inaugural address.

Dennis Keohane was a Senior Staff Writer for BetaBoston.
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