How Pittsburgh's open data might compare to other cities'

Written by Ethan Magoc on .

potholes pittsburgh 311Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto watches the pothole patching crew from Pittsburgh Public Works Division 5 fill potholes with asphalt cold patch on Sutherland St. in Pittsburgh's Sheraden neighborhood on Jan. 15, 2014. Seeing where people request pothole help and how frequently they're filled could be easier if Pittsburgh's open data legislation passes.                                  (Bob Donaldson / Post-Gazette)


After Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak introduced an open data bill at a Tuesday press conference a lively online discussion followed on the city’s proposed legislation.


It was met with overall enthusiasm, but beyond basics like pothole locations and crime reports, it doesn’t yet have specifics in line with what groups like Pittsburgh Data Works are hoping to see.


Thirty five cities and a handful of counties have adopted open data, according to


To explore potential implications of the proposal for Pittsburgh, let’s take a look at what other cities are doing in the open data realm:


  • 311 reports: Honolulu as opposed to Pittsburgh offers its 311 hotline dataset in an easily downloadable format. In Pittsburgh, the data needs to be requested before it can be analyzed. For example, reporter Emily DeMarco while working on 2012 Pittsburgh pothole investigation for PublicSource had to file a right-to-know request, the request was denied “on grounds that releasing the records would have a chilling effect on the public’s use of the call center,” DeMarco wrote. “But by that point, another city official had emailed me a redacted version of the database.”

  • City employee salaries: Want to know how much each person on the Boston city payroll takes home? From the schools superintendent to the lowest-paid janitor? Boston offers such reports on an annual basis. They include overtime, so you can see how many police made at least $50,000 in overtime pay. (Answer: 130.)
  • Violation tickets: Champaign, Ill., summarizes its most commonly issued violation tickets over the past decade. Alcohol-related citations accounted for about half of each year’s total. On the same Champaign site, by the way, you can see a detailed inventory of every one of the 26,940 trees the city owns — if you’re into that sort of thing.
  • Towed vehicles: Baltimore lists a live log of cars the city has had to tow. Time towed, storage yard, license plate number and vehicle make are among the items included. About 61,000 vehicles have been towed there since October 2010.
  • Fire hydrants: Integral to putting out fires in a city, but where exactly are they located? Do certain neighborhoods have more than others? Madison, Wisc., offers an answer in map form on its data portal.
  • FOIA requests: Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications updates daily its list of received Freedom of Information Act requests.
    • Benjamin Smith, Pittsburgh’s open records officer, said he doesn’t know if Pittsburgh would offer something similar. When asked about a list of all-right-to-know requests, Smith said, “I’ve never had that kind of request.” Meta, right? As for the average number of right-to-know requests, according to Smith, Pittsburgh receives about one a day.

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