March 5, 2015

Urbana launches open data portal

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Photo of Urbana's information technology director Sanford Hess

Darrell Hoemann/CU-CitizenAccess.org

Urbana's information technology director Sanford Hess, holds a tablet with the Urbana data portal in the server room at the city building on Thursday, March 5, 2015.

Access to Urbana police arrest data is now easier thanks to a new city website.

Earlier this month, the City of Urbana launched an open data portal that allows the public to download data on the city’s finances, police arrests and incidents and even nuisance complaints.

Officials also launched a separate site – Urbana Open Expenditures – to help the public better understand city finances.

Sanford Hess, Urbana’s Information Technology Director, said there is a lot of data dating back the past few decades and it was hard for their own employees, let alone residents, to access this information.

“All of the data is trapped in old systems,” he said.

The Urbana Open Data Portal site is complete as of now and has nine data sets to choose from. Those data sets include city government, finance, police, fire and rescue, Market at the Square, buildings, roads and streets and environment.

Staff used PDF documents, typically huge blocks of text, and made them more understandable. The information is now available in spreadsheet form.

Hess said Urbana will update the site regularly, hopefully on a weekly basis, and will add in more data sets over time.

Hess said he hopes that the data portal will help people look at data, quantify it, and find their own answers.

Users can visualize the data and create maps. What the public won’t find on the site, however, are names and specific addresses.

Urbana cleaned its datasets and removed identifying details such as names or street addresses of those arrested – instead offering block level information and demographic information.

“We offer things like arrests records on the portal. We list demographics, such as a person’s race, age, if they are a student or not but, we do not list the names,” said Hess.

Urbana’s move comes two years after a push by the state to make government data more accessible.

Champaign was one of four initial communities to participate in the Open Data Challenge in the 2012-2013 initiative. Champaign posted some datasets to data.illinois.gov during that time – such as maps of neighborhood groups and sidewalks.

But since then, the city has not posted any new datasets, said Mark Toalson, Champaign’s information technology director.

Instead, the City of Champaign’s own website gets more traffic, he said, and they are scouting software products to make information more available.

“We are considering a system that allows for any FOIA request to be posted online and how the city responds to them so, people can see that before sending in a FOIA request asking for the same information,” Toalson said.