Legislation Should Release Data, not Produce Maps

October 10, 2013

The following is re-posted from OpenSourcePlanning.org, and is written by Frank Hebbert of OpenPlans.

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Hey, legislators! Don’t write laws that require maps (especially those that detail how the map information will be aggregated).

Instead, write laws to open up data. The maps will come. Much easier. Shorter, future-proofed laws. 

If you feel strongly about this, go testify. @transalt will be there, and other open data smarties.

This time, the law under discussion is about crash data in NYC, but the same unfortunate approach already made it into law for crime data. Interactive maps are an excellent tool to making complex data public, but requirements for a city agency to produce the map is not the right approach. Why not?

  1. We need tools that answer questions and solve problems, and doing that well requires you to start with those needs, rather than building a generic map.
  2. The track record of government-built maps is not great, maybe because of #1, or the tools they have, or because of internal development practices that don’t involve users, or something else. For example, the SLA liquor license map.
  3. The track record of researchers and technologists and journalists to build data browsing tools is excellent. For example, excellent crime analysisinsightful 311 analysiseverything WNYC doesVizzuality’s output etc.
  4. There are complex tech problems that talented government technologists should work on. Making an interactive map isn’t one of them.
  5. Legislation that is extremely specific seems brittle and prone to letter-of-the-law following later. Especially if a city department decided to be uncooperative in the future. Whereas full disaggregated data is flexible. We already have guidelines for opening up data “right”, no need to re-design this for each different type of data. Getting particular about mapping requirements is the worst sort of over-specifying. For crashes, maybe the aggregation by street segment prevents analysis of intersection safety (for example).