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Opening up data unlocks citizenship

Brian Borncamp came around to the idea of open data in government the way many people come around to dealing with City Hall: He had a problem.

Borncamp, an IT consultant by day, wanted to buy a house. To find the perfect property, he wanted to see where all the vacant properties were in Buffalo and which neighborhoods had the most city-owned land. The information, by law, is public. So you’d think, in the age of big data, that the answers would have been easy to find.

Think again. The city offers information about properties online, but not in a way that’s easy to answer questions about whole neighborhoods.

Borncamp ended up writing his own code to comb through the city’s website and pull down public information about all properties in Buffalo. From there, he ran his own calculations.

He eventually found a house – a vacant tax-foreclosure property he picked up for $800. But it was just the beginning of his quest for data.

“I started to realize there’s a bigger picture here,” said Borncamp, who soon formed Buffalo Open Data to press for better access to public information.

If Borncamp lived in another city, say Detroit or New Orleans, he might have found his answer quickly. Cities across the country have embraced the idea that public information should not just be made available to those who ask for it, but should be easy to find and use.

That means giving people access to downloadable data about everything from 311 service requests to city spending so they can do their own analysis.

More than 50 state and local governments – New York State and Williamsville included – had adopted open-data policies by the end of 2014, according to the Sunlight Foundation.

All sorts of creative apps have been written to harness that information.

In Chicago, a city program to sell vacant land to nearby residents for $1 got a major boost last year when a community organization linked up with a civic technology company to build a website that let residents easily see city-owned lots for sale. Civic groups in Detroit combined city data, technology and old-fashioned shoe leather to create a massive map of the condition of properties. In Boston, people can browse information about all 311 calls or track snowplowing in real time.

Patty Macdonald sees all sorts of possibilities when governments open up data. She is working with other volunteers to fight slumlords in Buffalo and has found it tedious to piece together even basic data about properties. Information that can take more than an hour to compile in Buffalo can be found in minutes in New Orleans, which offers an online map to track blighted properties. “Any city that avails itself of open data is giving itself a great big boost in terms of being able to analyze problems,” Macdonald said.

New York has long had laws to ensure that government information is public. But the reality is, governments here routinely drag out the process so that it can take weeks and sometimes months to get basic public information.

Proactively providing data to the public would not only cut down on the backlog of requests, but give residents a real-time snapshot of what’s happening in their community.

Building a vibrant city is about engaging the public. Unleash the information and you’ll unleash all sorts of creative citizenry.