Open Data Success Looks Like This

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The New York Times reports hospital cost data that some of the data recently published by the State Health Department is wrong, but that revelation is a big win for Open NY, and health.data.ny.gov. This is exactly what should happen when important government data sets are published and scrutinized by the press and experts. All big data sets contain errors, but the more eyeballs that are looking at that data, the faster those errors will be found and corrected; as a result, the data will become more accurate and useful. If no errors are being found, it means that open data is not being used, or that the interested public isn’t able to effectively re-use that data for analysis.

So hooray to the Governor’s Open NY and health.data.ny.gov initiatives for getting important data opened up and released to the public, where it can be used and improved.  Here’s hoping for more reports of erroneous data in the months ahead. Data, like democracy, is imperfect: it takes an eternal and continuous effort to perfect them both.

Open the Data Underneath NYPD’s New Crime Map

Earlier this week, the New York City Police Department launched the crime map mandated by Local Law 39 of 2013, which City Council passed in April. (See Reinvent Albany’s testimony.) It’s good that City Council required the police to produce more information for the public. The public is intensely interested in information about crime and the security of their families. However, as an exercise in open government, the crime map is severely lacking.

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Unfortunately, Local Law 39 did not require the NYPD or DOITT to publish the data underneath the crime map. As a result, newspapers and civic hackers cannot map the data in more useful and interesting ways, as they have in places like Chicago or Los Angeles. Additionally, DOITT’s map is not particularly well executed compared to Seattles, the Chicago Tribune map or the LA Times Map. The map would have turned heads in 2000 or maybe 2005, but is not particularly impressive in 2013.

Maps are powerful tools for displaying complex data. But there is an art and science to making maps, and DOITT’s crime map is not particularly impressive compared to its peers. Take a look at the crime map the Chicago Tribune created using Chicago’s open data portal:

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The Chicago crime map features far more information, displayed in far more detail, in a much more user-friendly fashion than the NYC Crime Map. The Chicago crime map, again, was built by a newspaper; the data underlying this map is published by the city (here) and put to use by interested parties, not the city. That’s not to say Chicago, or New York, or other cities are incapable of creating powerful mapping platforms. For example, the city of Seattle’s My Neighborhood Map uses intuitive icons to show all types of 911 requests, and a separate map for crimes which provides details when the cursor is hovered over an icon. Each icon also links to a complete police report. All in all, Seattle’s approach is more informative, visually intuitive and comprehensive.

In 2009, by repeatedly using New York State’s Freedom of Information Law to obtain police reports, the New York Times created a map of all homicides from 2003 onwards (updated through 2011). A lot of time and energy went into procuring the data before one line of code for that map was written. If the NYPD were to truly open their data, the Times and public safety advocates could spend less time compiling records and more time creating resources.

Times Uses Open Data, Finds Hospital Costs with “Enormous Markups”

In an article yesterday, the New York Times wrote about the NYS Department of Health’s newest dataset, hospital billing charges for medical procedures:

As part of an effort to make health care pricing more transparent, the state is naming hospitals and listing their median charges and costs for 1,400 conditions and procedures from 2009 to 2011. In 2011, prices ranged from the $8 bill at Benedictine Hospital in Kingston, N.Y., for treating a case of gastritis (cost: $2), to a $2.8 million charge for a blood disorder case at University Hospital of Brooklyn that cost it $918,462.

The phrase “dataset” isn’t used once in this article, nor is “open data” – if you set up a Google Alert for open data success stories, this wouldn’t show up on your radar. But this is open data from one of the premier open data initiatives in the United States, the NYS Department of Health. In June of this year, Commissioner Nirav Shah won the Health Data Liberator award at the national Health Datapalooza.  This is a great example of why.

More broadly, this is what open data is supposed to do. It’s not just about grassroots developers building tools, admirable as that is; it’s about a major media outlet having the resources to explain how our government (and health care system) works. This helps everyone, patients and policymakers alike, make smarter decisions.

Money in Politics in NY: Dec. 9 Edition

Moreland Commission Endorses Public Financing of Elections

On Monday, the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption released a preliminary report on its findings and recommendations regarding the state’s election, campaign finance, corruption, and transparency laws. Governor Andrew Cuomo appointed the commission in July following corruption scandals involving several legislators in Albany and the failure of the legislature to pass comprehensive reform. The preliminary report includes strong recommendations for lowering sky-high campaign contribution limits, closing loopholes, restricting the personal use of campaign funds, disclosing independent expenditures, and creating an independent enforcement agency. The commission also singled out matching small private donations with public funds for election campaigns as an effective strategy to generate greater citizen participation. “Small donor matching also allows those without access to well-heeled interests and without the support of large independent expenditures to nevertheless compete in elections,” the report stated.

Editorials Praise Moreland Recommendations

The New York Times praised the Moreland Commission’s recent report on Wednesday. Criticizing the “engrained corruption” in Albany, the editorial urged Governor Cuomo to “push for a new system of campaign financing that provides public matching grants for small campaign donations.” The editorial pointed out that the cost of $41 million per year for public financing could easily be covered by one fewer tax break for a big developer.

The Buffalo News wrote, “the effort to establish a voluntary system of public financing of elections in New York is a critical component to change in Albany’s pay-to-play culture.”

The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle demanded legislative action on public financing and the rest of the campaign finance reforms in the Moreland report.

The Albany Times Union called public financing as recommended by the commission “a bargain for cleaner elections and government.”

NY Times on Moreland Commission Report, Legalized Bribery

The Times editorial page has covered the Moreland Commission’s initial report on the pay-to-play culture in Albany:

The panel deputized this summer to investigate corruption in Albany released its first report this week. It is, quite properly, scathing — a damning list of the ways that New York State politicians twist, abuse and sometimes break the law to enjoy the fruits of a pay-to-play government where “large donors set the legislative agenda.” The 25-member panel — The Commission to Investigate Public Corruption — has done New Yorkers a great service. It has provided one of the best guidebooks for reforming Albany’s corrosive culture in many decades.

Read the entire editorial here.