Geography · Economics · Visualization

Hopeful Developments In Government Data Publishing. Yes, I Said “Hopeful”


We’ve been talking Open Data for years here at MapBrief, often with a good deal of exasperation at the publishing priorities of otherwise well-intentioned government authorities.

But today I bring only hope.


Open With Apps – A Promising Syndication Model

Back in March announced “open with apps” where some datasets could now be visualized/analyzed directly using Plotly and/or CartoDB with the promise of more services being added.

Why this is good:  it encourages a clean division of labor–government entities focus on data publishing while third party entities focus on visualization and analysis.

A credible, long-term commitment to open data requires resources.  And diverting resources to one-off visualization tools has proved to be an enriching experience only for whatever government contractor built the thing.

And mapping portals? Please, no more.

For a great read on why this single-minded focus data is so important, see this recent Chris Whong post .


Cloud Economics = Competing Platforms

Instead of handing millions to contractors for suboptimal interfaces, let the many cloud-based visualization platforms compete (‘compete’, in like, the capitalism sense of the word) to accept open data feeds and try and convert free-tier users to faithful subscribers through great user experiences.

Worst case scenario: none of these 3rd party platforms find it economically viable over the long run and open data publishers provide a download button and call it ‘done’.


Leave Infrastructure to the Experts

Another hopeful development is the announcement that Amazon is hosting Landsat scenes on its S3 infrastructure.

For free.

Again, the economics of the cloud are such that the experts can provide services at very low cost.  Hence my plea awhile back that the government focus on data, not ‘infrastructure’.  What we don’t need is a big contractor emulating the same service while soaking the taxpayer with a 15-20x mark-up.


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The Open Data movement has already won over those persuadable by the idealism of transparent government, etc.  It’s been less successful articulating a nuts-and-bolts economic rationale.  Here’s hoping the jettisoning of wasteful interfaces in favor of 3rd party syndication will encourage a singular focus on the data and nothing but the data.


—Brian Timoney








The Road to Bad Policy Is Paved By Good Intentions and Misconceived Maps

One blessing/curse of Twitter has been its singular ability to bring all manner of maps to my timeline and seize my attention one 8-second increment at a time.

Some are interesting/cool/fascinating.

Some make me laugh.

Some are so cringe-worthy, I feel compelled to re-tweet.

And a few leave me muttering “no, no, No, No, NO.”


Because sometimes the stakes are much higher than a graphic artist at an elite publication making rookie cartographic mistakes. Sometimes maps influence policy, guide funding decisions, affect real lives.

This is one of those times.

The above map comes from the recently released “Vision Zero Pedestrian Safety Action Plan: Brooklyn“, part of a larger effort in New York City to address the persistent problem of vehicle/pedestrian collisions.

When Is Heat Map Not A Heat Map

Kenneth Field has a recent thorough post on the all-purpose moniker “heat map” being applied to kernel-density maps. Let me give you my oversimplified Cliff’s Notes version in light of the above map:

a)  ’Heat maps’ obviously take their name from the familiar temperature map where the actual temperature is measured at specific point locations and a temperature for all of the unmeasured areas is interpolated.  But the map above doesn’t make sense in this context because we know the exact data values for every other intersection in Brooklyn without a dot on it: zero pedestrian deaths.

b)  In creating “hot spot” maps we are also strongly implying that the conditions causing the phenomenon being mapped are propagated generally over space. But when we think about the factors contributing to pedestrian deaths–traffic volumes, pedestrian volumes, street width, speed limits, visibility issues–they have such a geographic specificity that a side street intersection could be very safe although it’s merely a block away from a demonstrably dangerous intersection.

If You’re Diffusing The Problem, Are You Diffusing the Impact of Policy?

To be fair, the report talks about Priority Intersections and Priority Corridors: all to the good, given the pattern of our data points.

But what concerns me are the Priority Areas because of the discussion above of how spatially specific are the conditions that endanger pedestrians.  Consider the item of the Action Plan that calls for “60 new speed bumps in Brooklyn annually”. Where will it be most difficult to install speed bumps: the busiest corridors? Along bus routes?  But the relatively diffuse “Priority Areas” open up the option of making sure we hit our quota of 60 bumps per year by looking at less contested spaces on sleepy side streets.  The plan will be executed, but will the impact be significant?

Representation Matters (Again)

As an outsider, I clearly see the time and effort that went into the report: from collecting and analyzing the data to holding inter-agency meetings and gathering input from the public–all creditworthy.  Often enough objections to cartographic choices are brushed aside for being fussy and pedantic: “my points are correctly located, my North arrow points up, so please shut up.”  And “heat maps” have never been easier to make–so why not create a compelling visual that will be seized on by the press and Twitter?

Because maps frame problems and drive policy solutions. The above maps invite resources to be channeled into areas with relatively low pedestrian risk–muting the impact of precious public dollars.

Despite everyone’s good intentions.


—Brian Timoney



Daring To Build a Citizen-Centric Homepage: The Philadelphia Story


Over the holiday the City of Philadelphia posted an “alpha” version of its new website and encouraged public feedback: a nice example of customer engagement and iterative improvement.  But also a reminder of how local government webpages fail their would-be users in some very basic ways.  As someone who has seen the local gov web sausage up close, I have feedback.

Good Thing #1: A Big, Obvious Auto-Complete Text Entry Box

After 15+ years of googling, this should be a no-brainer.

You know who hasn’t gotten the memo? Three of the four largest cities in the US : New York, Los Angeles, Houston. (Good on you, Chicago). Not having auto-complete on your homepage is not asking your user to find the needle in a haystack, it’s asking the user to find the needle in the haystack while blindfolded.

Good Thing #2: Making Prime Webpage Real Estate Useful

If the top half of the web page is supposed to contain the most valuable, urgent content you absolutely want to get in front of the visitor, then the puzzling decision many cities make is to use this real estate to show you pictures.  Where are you going to go for a slide show of Seattle– Flickr or the webpage?  But that’s small beer compared to what LA has going on: their oversized slide show includes “Best of The Web” and “Digital Cities” awards. Which, come to think of it, may well be an effective way for LA to communicate that its most distinctive quality is bewildering self-regard.

Where’s The Mayor?

Maybe I’m biased, coming from a city where there have been rumors of prolonged discussion of the relative pixel sizes of the mayor’s photo and the city council’s photo on the homepage, but the size and position of the mayor’s photo seems to be a good indication of either his or her power or the degree of internal sycophancy–I can’t decide which.  Goodness knows that in our age of Facebook/Twitter/Instagram, mayors have other channels with which to assert their brand, so maybe they don’t need to be the first thing a citizen looking for the trash pick-up schedule sees.

What’s Missing?  The Street Address

Look, on the web we’re all narcissists. Impatient ones at that.

So in that autocomplete box on the homepage let residents enter in their address to take them directly to their property information.  Not just their assessments, etc. but also the nearest park, library, police station, school, parking regulations, etc.  Don’t make them hunt for that information on each department’s separate web page:  link outward from their individual property page.

How hard would it be to enable auto-lookup for Philadelphia’s half million addresses?  Well, you can try this simple app I created two years ago for another blog post. Still seems to work, mostly.

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Let’s be straight:  search engines have made home pages increasingly irrelevant as citizens look to Google first in navigating the informational morass of their local government’s website. But doesn’t this imply that the users who still start with the homepage are in more need of intuitive search tools?

Whatever the case, it’s a positive sign that at least one city is prioritizing the digital needs of its citizens over the prerogatives of glib self-promotion that have too long been the default mode.


—Brian Timoney


Philly photo courtesy of  Jakob Monstrasio’s Flickr stream