Pittsburgh, PA: Open Data

City of Pittsburgh

Population: 306,211 (2012)

Form of government: Mayor-council

Open data champion: Laura Meixell, Analytics and Strategy Manager

Date of interview: June 2014

What were the most important steps you took to get open data off the ground?

In Pittsburgh, we’re just starting our Open Data program. Our first step was to draft and pass Open Data legislation. We wrote the bill based on the experience of other Cities and the recommendations of the Sunlight Foundation. We published the draft online as a Google Doc with the “comment” function turned on, and allowed anyone to weigh in and make suggestions. The response that we got was exciting, lots of really great comments from folks here in Pittsburgh as well as people with experience from across the country. Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak was the sponsor of the bill, and she and I sat down and considered each comment and made corresponding alterations to the bill to make it stronger, clearer, and more comprehensive.

Sometimes, issues that come before our City Council can be contentious, but we were really pleased that the Open Data bill passed unanimously. Prior to introducing and debating the bill, we held information sessions for members of Council and had a chance to talk with them about their questions and concerns and to make sure the bill addressed them. There is a strong feeling that we need to be better about data sharing internally in Pittsburgh City Government, to the extent that members of council often file Right to Know requests to departments to collect information necessary for oversight. We found ways to help everyone see how Open Data could benefit their projects and succeeded in getting that early buy-in.

How did you prioritize open data in your city?

Open Data was a major part of Mayor Peduto’s campaign in 2013. He promised that as Mayor he would make Pittsburgh City Government more transparent, cooperative, and tech savvy, so an Open Data program is a great fit. He hired me, Laura Meixell, a 2013 Code for America Fellow as one of the first managers of the team. When he hired me, he made it clear that he wanted to develop a world class program that would transform the way City departments do business, develop technology, and interact with partners in the private sector.

The Open Data bill was introduced in one of the very first legislative sessions of the Peduto Administration. Not only is the Mayor committed to Open Data, but several councilmembers showed real leadership on developing a program that works for the many high capacity NGOs and research groups in our community. Open Data is truly central to a community based, collaborative vision for progress in Pittsburgh.

What have been the biggest challenges?

Our biggest challenge is the current lack of centralized documentation of City business processes, information systems, and data resources. Over the last several years in Pittsburgh City Government, a leadership vacuum led to the denigration of previously existing systems of record and a kind of anarchy in software implementation. The task of determining what City functions are or are not captured by various systems, what the data looks like, and whether parallel systems of record exists is a major challenge for my team.

What tactics have you tried to overcome those challenges?

We’re in the process of developing a massive software inventory and data dictionary. I have two graduate interns for the summer helping me to interview folks and get a sense for the tools they use in their jobs and where they record vital information about City business. We’re working with the City of Chicago and the University of Chicago to build on their work on the public data dictionary and they have been a great help, but the biggest part of this job is just talking with City workers to better understand their jobs, learn about their experiences with technology, and find ways to help them and the public plug into the data resources that are generated by their work.

How have you proved the value for open data?

One way that we’ve proven the demand for Open Data is by launching a special site where community members can nominate data sets for release and talk about how they would use them. It’s called Pgh Data Forum and it was inspired by the Open Data Race that Philadelphia did a few years ago. We’re using our Mindmixer engagement to power the site, which can be seen here.

We’ve got requests from a variety of non-profit, journalism, and neighborhood organizations, all with very good use cases on which we’ll build out pilot Open Data sets. We want to make sure the first datasets we release will be immediately interesting and useful to projects that people care about.

What are some of your early successes?

In February 2014, a team tackling the City of Pittsburgh challenge at the Steel City Codefest, the biggest, most professional hackathon in town, won first place. The team was made up of an really talented group of folks, mostly employees of local Pittsburgh company American Eagle, who had been thoughtfully assembled by a team leader to represent all important parts of software development, including design and UX. I’m mostly proud of the team and all the work they have put into the application, but I’m also proud of how we worked with them to design our challenge. We developed a challenge that was big enough to have an impact and be used by Pittsburghers from all walks of life, but small enough in scope to be tackled in a weekend. Subsequently the team got a grant from a local foundation to continue their work and make the application long lasting. We are just about to roll it out and I can’t wait to have our first modest civic application deployed Citywide!

What has been your most successful argument for generating buy-in among the government staff or community?

Our ideas and plans for Open Data have been well received by most people in our community. We’ve strived to be as flexible and inclusive as possible and I think people appreciate that. At the same time that we’re working on the software inventory and data catalogue and soliciting community feedback via the Pgh Dataforum, we’re working with partners at our local Universities and in partner governments to come up with a model for a data portal that can grow to support a wide range of information sharing needs. I’m looking forward to developing what we’re calling our Regional Data Resource Center in a way that will support the expansion of the City of Pittsburgh’s Open Data program into a truly regional project.