“Open data” websites can help cities increase efficiency while making important information easily accessible to residents — which is even more critical in the age of COVID-19.
By Mary Jane Smetanka
Every day, Bemidji City Hall staff would respond to a variety of questions.
Residents called about neighborhood property lines. Developers wanted to know if utilities were installed near vacant lots, and plumbers asked where water lines and shut-off valves were. Visitors wanted to know which city parks had picnic shelters, and in the fall, archers wondered what parts of the city would be open to hunt deer.
Answering those questions took time for city staff. Today, all that information is on Bemidji’s user-friendly GIS (geospatial information systems) hub on the city website. While people still call City Hall, more are going straight to the web to find the information themselves.
“People are using it,” says Brett Case, Bemidji’s GIS coordinator. “When I look at daily usage, I think it’s maybe 20 phone calls we didn’t get. More and more, people are expecting that cities have this information available [online].”
The push toward open data
Rapidly changing technology means that city records and information that once filled file cabinets with paper can now be prominent on city websites. The push toward “open data” is making cities more efficient and has the potential to transform cities’ relationships with citizens, says Nick Meyers, an account manager with Esri, a software firm that works with many Minnesota cities.
With the COVID-19 outbreak, some cities have begun using those open data sites to quickly direct people to easy-to-use resources like information about where free lunches are available to children who aren’t in school, and how to digitally navigate city processes that are usually done in person.
“Sharing information with the public through open data adds transparency and can help start a dialogue with the general public,” says Meyers, who also serves on a committee of the state’s Geospatial Advisory Council. “You can improve efficiency and bring people together through technology and data.”
Minnesota law encourages government to share public information and make it freely available. While that makes some city officials nervous, more communities are moving toward making data easily accessible.
“The systems we have now enable easier sharing with the public,” Meyers says. “Once you put information on websites and push it out there, you get fewer formal information requests. That saves you time as an organization.”
It’s not clear how many Minnesota cities have formal open data or GIS websites, but the number is growing. In rural areas, counties often act as a data host for city information. Meyers says the most common uses of open data by cities include information about public safety, property boundaries, school districts, parks, and zoning. (See sidebar on this page: “Examples of Local Government Open Data Sites.”)
While many cities have long posted their budgets and other statistics on the web, more are creating dedicated open data or GIS pages that include many types of data and mapping information on one easy-to-navigate page.
Gone are the days when those websites featured files that could only be downloaded and analyzed by the technically adept. Bright with photos and pictorial links that invite even computer-wary users to explore data with the click of a mouse, the information can be many layers deep, going from general to extremely detailed.
And, with the COVID-19 outbreak, open data has become even more important. It’s being used at every level of government, from federal to local. On April 3, Gov. Tim Walz announced the Minnesota COVID-19 Public Dashboard, which offers a plethora of information about the disease, including the number of cases in the state, what to do if you are sick, and how to protect yourself. Access the state dashboard at https://bit.ly/mncovidinfo. (See related story: “Using Open Data to Track the Coronavirus.”)
Quick local info on COVID-19
When COVID-19 emerged, some local governments, including the City of Rosemount, quickly pivoted to add easily accessible information that helped residents in a confusing time.
After schools closed in March, Aaron Menza, a Rosemount GIS analyst, saw that the school district was posting information about free lunch availability for kids in need. He posted a map on the city website, showing the district’s meal drop-off sites as well as the location of restaurants that were offering meals to needy students.
Menza later added a second map showing Rosemount restaurants that were still open for takeout. Soon the “open for business” map also showed where other businesses, like hotels, gas stations, and stores, were open.
Shortly after they were created, both maps were expanded to provide countywide information. GIS staff in nearby cities as well as Dakota County provide technical support and help maintain the sites.
Cities and the county promote the maps through Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Menza says in the first week, the lunch site had 1,500 hits and the business site around 1,000 hits.
“Especially with student meals, that seemed pretty important for families,” he says. “I think people find the business one useful if they’re wondering what’s open near them.”
Meyers says cities and counties are using such websites to make it easier for citizens to interact with them digitally. Information about where to get food and other supplies, school closings, and how to accomplish city processes online are common.
They’re also adding trusted sources of public information to websites to make sure people are getting accurate information. For example, Beltrami County launched a COVID-19 Response site, which includes county, city, school, and state updates related to the pandemic.
ESRI is offering free resources and guidance to communities that want to provide online COVID-related information to their residents. Learn more at: https://www.esri.com/en-us/covid-19/overview.
“We’re just trying to be a resource and help communities out,” Meyers says.
Budget info to population trends
Long before the appearance of COVID, many cities launched open data sites to provide residents with easy access to the most requested information. The City of Blaine’s “Open Blaine” site includes budget information and building permits, as well as details on development, property values, and population trends. Click on a link and up pop city maps showing snowplow routes, crime statistics, new developments, and trail and park locations.
People who are considering buying a house in Blaine can get information on building inspections and permits going back to the day the structure was built, complete with handwritten notes, says Blaine Communications Manager Ben Hayle.
“This is all public data, so why not make it easy to find?” Hayle says. “It’s much more efficient for us. We can just direct people to the website.”
One example of how posting information on the web saves the city time is the snowplow route map. It shows which roads get plowed first, and which roads are private or the county’s responsibility, meaning the city doesn’t clear them. “It’s a simple tool but it answers the question, ‘Who maintains my road?’” Hayle says.
Saving time and money
In Moorhead, Brad Anderson has been the city GIS manager since 2008. When in the 1990s Moorhead started posting what he calls “the big four” data sets that everyone wanted — property parcels, addresses, roads, and aerial photos — people would call, and the data would have to be put on a CD. File sizes were limited, and people would be charged for the staff work that went into compiling that information.
Now people can go to Moorhead’s open data site and see aerial photos and maps with details about construction projects and road closings. They can find park amenities and check to see if hiking and biking trails are flooded. Realtors, appraisers, and financial institutions can get information about properties without calling anyone at the city.
The data is always current, automatically updated every night with any new information that’s been filed with the city or county.
“Now people are downloading and using my data and it doesn’t take a minute of my time,” Anderson says. “The real power of GIS is that people can zoom in on a map and click on [a property parcel] and get all the information in one place, rather than having to chase down five departments and get people on the phone. It is getting easier for people every year.”
One of the most popular uses of Bemidji’s site is the public utility finder. An aerial photo is overlaid with utility locations, and plumbers use it to help locate water lines and shut-off valve locations, an especially useful feature in winter when everything is covered with snow. One of the most common uses by homeowners is looking for property lines.
The site has a bold disclaimer urging people to survey their land before building a fence or shed and to check with utility companies before digging. “I joke that GIS means, ‘get it surveyed,’” Case says.
The city also created an archery deer hunt app that shows where hunting is permitted. Case is working on a new app that maps the “birds, bees, and butterflies” gardens that are being installed by Bemidji schools and businesses. That information will be added to the “story maps” on the open data site.
“We are only limited by our imagination,” Case says. “There’s tons of potential to showcase our parks and the city.”
Open data in small cities
For smaller cities, counties often host data. Rice County maintains and shares information for some of its cities. The county site includes maps, aerial photos, elevation data, and current and historical property information with photos. People can locate property lines, wetlands and floodplains, and right of ways.
“Property information is probably the most popular,” says Michelle Trager, GIS coordinator for Rice County. “It’s used by homeowners, developers, and just the curious. People used to come into our offices and ask a lot of questions. Now they can answer those questions by looking at the map and help themselves.”
Balancing openness with privacy
Some city officials have had reservations about open data, worried that it puts too much information online. Concerns about infrastructure were especially heightened after 9/11. Information about electrical grids is rarely put online, but in many cities, locations of sewer and water lines and lift stations are visible.
“It was almost a homeland security issue, but now with Google Maps, you can find this stuff quite easily,” Meyers says. “Developers want to know this. If they’re interested in certain properties and find all the utilities are there, it makes [development] attractive.”
But, he says, cities always have to balance openness with privacy. Public health data, for instance, is a sensitive area, and cities need to make sure the information they make public fits with privacy laws.
State law protects cities from liability if the information they post falls within those guidelines. Meyers says that’s why it’s wise to involve communications people in development of open data sites. They understand what can be shared.
The cost of providing data
Another issue some local governments are still grappling with is the question of charging for data. Until recently, it was common for cities to charge for data requests. Some city officials still want to do that, but GIS experts advise against it.
A few jurisdictional holdouts in the state need to be convinced “that it is better to make it free and open,” Moorhead’s Anderson says.
Says Bemidji’s Case, “In my view it’s already been paid for by taxpayers.”
Creating an open data site can be done economically, Meyers says. While it’s easy to be intimidated by the idea of creating such a site, he recommends that city officials view the project less as a technology job and more as a communications effort.
Simple templates are available to create an attractive web page. He says the cities that have been most successful have created websites that anyone can use.
“Try to keep it simple,” Meyers says. “Start small, get feedback, and slowly adjust over time.”
Good targets for a fledgling open data site include subjects that get the most questions and information requests from residents and businesses. Usually those include property, zoning, and public safety information.
Putting permit information online can satisfy curiosity and reduce calls to city hall. People always want to know why there’s a dumpster in the street or what construction is happening nearby.
More user-friendly open data sites hosted by cities are inevitable, Meyers says.
“The city open house on one night a year just isn’t accessible for everyone,” he says. “People do banking online, get their news online; why shouldn’t they get information from the city online? The technology is available.”
Mary Jane Smetanka is a freelance writer.