Why Atlanta is taking tiny bits of info very seriously

City Hall throws its arms around hackers and learns to love data

Deep in a wooded ravine on a vacant parcel in Peoplestown sits a mountain of old tires. There’s no telling how long they’ve been sitting there collecting water, breeding mosquitoes, and sullying the property. Or how many there are.

“That’s hundreds. At least 200, maybe more,” said longtime community activist Columbus Ward as he escorted volunteers from Georgia State University around the neighborhood.

During previous cleanups of illegally dumped tires, Ward and others would simply drive around and note the locations of the eyesores. In recent years, they started working with volunteers to create a spreadsheet filled with the information.

Now, thanks to the GA Tires app built by Georgia State University’s Department of Geosciences, they can create a photo-filled database of problem areas with a couple quick taps on their smartphones. They simply pinpoint their location, enter in the number of tires, snap and upload a photo, and press submit. The data is compiled in a database available to residents, police, elected officials — pretty much anyone.

“It helps us identify places and send volunteers to what we call ‘hot spots’ to utilize our time better,” Ward says. “It tells us how many tires we need to pick up, how many volunteers, trucks, and manpower we need.”

Across town, Georgia Tech professor Randall Guensler’s research team is outfitting wheelchairs with Toshiba tablets. Over the next few months, dozens of professors, students, and volunteers will push the devices across the city’s estimated 2,200 miles of sidewalks. Along the way, the tablets’ cameras will record more than 6,000 hours of footage, capturing every inch of public walkways.

“You can’t make public policy without data,” says Guensler. “You can’t do future planning without data. This makes it tenable for everybody.”

The painstaking process ultimately will provide Atlanta officials with a comprehensive map showing the condition of the city’s sidewalks that the general public will be able to access online. Guensler believes his team will save the city hours of costly labor and give construction workers a clear idea of the needed repairs.

These projects are just two of many local initiatives that involve collecting massive amounts of data in hopes of improving the city. Thanks to several simple-to-use, low- to no-cost programs that have proliferated in the last few years, it’s a trend that’s becoming more common in cities across the country. Over the past year, tech-savvy Atlantans have joined the growing legions of citizens who, by hobby or profession, take seemingly meaningless data and use it to propose possible solutions for everyday problems. Whether the city will actually follow through on the potential projects — and avoid some privacy pitfalls — remains to be seen.

City governments across the United States have slowly started to use big data to inform public policy over the last three years. In the past, officials didn’t always look at the data their departments collected. That resulted in missed opportunities or less-than-informed policy decisions, despite having troves of information available. In most cases, they had difficulty distilling the large amounts of data sitting right in front of them. In Atlanta, City Hall started getting serious about using its data late in Mayor Shirley Franklin’s administration.

Those efforts have continued under Mayor Kasim Reed with a rebranded internal team named Focus on Results Atlanta - or FOR Atlanta - that’s tasked with measuring how City Hall departments and programs perform.

Later this month, the city’s Finance Department is expected to launch a new “open data portal” that will give residents access to Atlanta’s revenues, expenses, licenses, debts, awards, and other figures. What started as a project aimed at streamlining massive amounts of open record requests soon turned into a way to create greater transparency — something Atlanta has struggled with over the years.

Chief Financial Officer Jim Beard says the portal will give citizens unprecedented access to “pure data” from his department, which could help reduce costs and improve services. He estimates his staff could save Atlanta between $500,000 and $750,000 by switching to paperless vendor payments, a solution found by taking a more analytical approach to the data. He wants to open his department’s doors so that outsiders can bring fresh ideas for cutting costs, improving services, and solving other problems.

While Atlanta has hinted at wholeheartedly embracing data, which Mayor Kasim Reed has backed, the city’s initiative is still in its infancy. City officials say that will change as other departments — including police, parks and recreation, watershed, and aviation — eventually follow suit. “The administration took the view from the very beginning that the city’s data is public data,” says Alfonso Pinan, the city’s director of financial systems services.

The Planning Department, working with the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, has rolled out an app called Cycle Atlanta that allows pedalers to record their commutes, document potholes and dangers, and share those findings with City Hall. Officials will be able to use the information to help them plan new bicycling improvements and determine how bikes should factor into other transportation projects.

It’s not just City Hall that’s opening its curtains to the public. Late last year, MARTA finally released information including details about its schedule and real-time bus locations, allowing programmers to make apps and programs that help people use the transit system and attract new riders. The Atlanta Regional Commission, the metropolitan planning agency that for decades has been a data powerhouse, invested in purchasing proprietary real-time traffic data to measure travel patterns. This summer, the state Environmental Protection Division plans to unveil a website that highlights reported illegal tire dumps, landfills, recycling centers, and manufacturers that reuse scrapped products.

Some of these efforts empower people to take charge and find solutions for community issues that, for whatever reason, have been overlooked or ignored at the local level. With the help of the GA Tires app, Peoplestown residents frustrated by streets dotted with scrap tires can now document the litter in a photo-filled database. They can present that evidence to elected officials or police to investigate.

“If you show someone data, it has to be accepted,” says Jack Reed, the director of GSU’s geospatial lab and one of the app’s developers.

Making data available to the public also gives cash-strapped governments the freedom to let citizens and outside organizations solve problems. In February, Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development agency, helped organize Atlanta’s first-ever Govathon, a 24-hour hackathon where tech-minded individuals came together to turn bureaucratic data into something useful.

Among the best apps developed was Crime Syndicate, a free Web-based and smartphone program that allows people to access police reports online and to report crime. Atlanta Police Department Major Joseph Spillane, one of the officers involved with the app, says it could ultimately save the APD “about $200,000” by reducing equipment and staffing costs. It would also cut some red tape involved with obtaining police reports. The Govathon also led to the creation of three other programs that will soon allow users to search city park amenities, report vacant homes in blighted areas, and rate Atlanta’s customer service.

As city officials, businesses, and researchers increasingly rely on big data, the potential downsides and inevitable questions of privacy need to be addressed. For some efforts, particularly those involving transportation, collecting data might require purchasing instruments, devices, or proprietary information, such as those real-time traffic counts.

Without funding to carry out data-backed projects, all the city has are reams of information, some of which is potentially embarrassing. Data does little if city leaders don’t follow through on the findings. For example, the state EPD already boasts a massive list of illegally dumped tire sites. It knows where the problems are. But thanks to the Legislature’s habit of dipping into a trust fund set up to pay for tire cleanups, the money has dwindled and the problem rarely gets addressed. Or gets worse. For the upcoming year, state lawmakers have set aside roughly $340,000 — enough to clean 11 of the state’s 301 known problem sites.

Government agencies also have to be careful about revealing citizens’ private information, especially when dealing with police reports. Simply put: All data must be protected.

“The level of detail you have is amazing,” says Guensler, whose cameras may document license plates and private property as they look at sidewalk cracks. “It’s scary how much information you gather.”

Although Spillane says “almost everything written by the Atlanta Police Department” is subject to open records requests, some info will be redacted as a precautionary measure. They’ll also work to make sure the data is not mined and wrongfully exploited by outsiders. The city’s finance department, Pinan says, would also withhold sensitive information from its open data portal such as social security numbers. It’s those kinds of precautions that need extra consideration to protect sensitive information.

Atlanta has a long way to go before its capabilities approach those of other big data programs. Last fall, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg created a $1 million department dedicated to data, where approximately six next-generation “quants” work every day to better understand how NYC works. These new-age mathematicians track down code violations, help emergency crews respond faster to natural disasters, and make the city’s complex operations run smoother and save cash.

It’s not just New York that’s ahead of the curve. Other cities including Chicago, Washington, D.C., and even Dubuque, Iowa, have used big data to enforce billboard codes, make public finance records more transparent, and reduce utility costs, respectively. Earlier this month, President Barack Obama signed an executive order requiring the federal government to make more public data available.

Atlanta’s data analysis mostly takes place at a departmental level, though FOR Atlanta keeps track of how programs perform. While City Hall doesn’t have its own robust, dedicated number-crunching laboratory yet, Reed Spokeswoman Anne Torres says it’s not out of the question down the road.

Duriya Farooqui, Atlanta’s chief operating officer, says there’s a strong possibility the city could collaborate with the private sector, as it’s done with the Atlanta Beltline, new Falcons stadium, surveillance camera network, and “Centers of Hope,” the mayor’s supercharged recreation facilities.

“In five to 10 years, what I hope to see is more and more public problems and challenges being solved through private innovation and solutions based on public information,” says Farooqui. “That is not where we are today. That is where the big data movement is advocating for us to go.”

NOTE: This article has been altered to correct three errors. Focus on Results Atlanta is the name of the internal team that measures how city government is performing. In addition, FOR Atlanta’s software will not be used by the city’s planned 311 call center to help residents track their complaints.