Civic Innovations

Technology, Government Innovation, and Open Data

Urban Storytelling with Open Data

One of the most important qualities of open data is that it can provide unparalleled insight into how a city works.

Open data empowers urban storytelling – the process of identifying a trend, or some important characteristic of an urban area and then presenting that information in a compelling way for others.

When I speak about open data, one of the things I emphasize is that the tools for creating stories with data are becoming more powerful and widespread everyday. With the right data, it’s not hard to tell an important or compelling story about a city. To prove my point, I decided to “put my money where my mouth is” at a recent civic hacking meetup in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia.

The City of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Police Department recently released a hugely important dataset – major crime incidents occurring in the city. This data is available as both a static download (updated with the latest information each morning) or through set of APIs. I decided to use this data set, and a tool that’s been on my list to experiment with for a while – Torque, from CartoDB – to tell an urban story.

The code I wrote to tell my story is on GitHub, and you can see the data visualization I built here.

Below is a screencast of the steps I took to build this visualization – as I have said many times, the amount of effort required to build a compelling civic application (provided the right data is available) is trivial. See if you agree after watching this short video.

The technology is elegant. The visualization is cool. But the story itself is rather sad – there are way too many homicides in Philadelphia.

Our Mayor and other city leaders are working hard to change this. Just recently, Mayor Nutter articulated the frustrations of mayors from across the country who are calling for tighter restrictions on the guns that cause so many of the homicides in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

I think part of the change that Mayor Nutter and other mayors are calling for is showing people the magnitude of the problem. This is what a compelling visualization can do – it can reach someone the way that a written story or even a one-on-one conversation often can not.

The problem of violence that plagues urban areas isn’t just a challenge for our city leaders. It’s a challenge for all of us – we all need to be a part of making positive change happen. One way to reach people and motiviate them to be a part of the change is to build a compelling visualization – to tell a compelling urban story. With the right tools, almost anyone can do it.

This is the power of open data.

2 responses to “Urban Storytelling with Open Data”

  1. […] with CartoDB’s Torque library. If you like the visualization then you should check out the screencast by the developer on how he created the map. The screencast shows how easy it is to build a […]

  2. […] with CartoDB’s Torque library. If you like the visualization then you should check out the screencast by the developer on how he created the map. The screencast shows how easy it is to build a […]

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About Me

I am the former Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia. I also served as Director of Government Relations at Code for America, and as Director of the State of Delaware’s Government Information Center. For about six years, I served in the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS), and helped pioneer their work with state and local governments. I also led platform evangelism efforts for TTS’ cloud platform, which supports over 30 critical federal agency systems.

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