What has open council data ever done for us?

Explore England: an example of what you can do with the data. Image: Illustreets.

It’s been nearly a year since Eric Pickles, the UK’s Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government issued a policy statement  requesting that local councils open up their data to the public.  

Since then, progress has been slow – but there has been progress. A number of cities (Manchester, Leeds, Cambridge, London) have published open data sets. But without a common access point, or a declaration of available data like the Open Data Census in the US, it’s hard to know how many.

The big question now is: is transparency enough?

Boris Johnson thinks so. In October this year, London’s mayor, a keen advocate of municipal open data, launched London’s second data store. At the time, he said it would provide “a wealth of material that the world's brightest minds will be able to use to develop new insight and apps that can be used to solve the big city problems”. The inference is that if you open the data the developers will come.

Perhaps he is right: London’s first open data store gave rise to the increasingly popular Citymapper app that now covers 13 cities in Europe, the US and South America.

Once upon a time such complex problem solving would be the domain of the sort of people who broke the Enigma code. Today, though, there are businesses, organisations and local hacking groups of all sizes answering the call and pouring over these now freely available local data sets. Civic hacking nights or hackathons –lots of very clever techy people eating pizza and drinking sugar, while building local apps and data visualisation tools – were born in US cities such as San Francisco and Chicago. But they’re established in parts of the UK, too.

According to Tom Cheesewright, a technology futurologist for Book of the Future, this is inevitable given the nature of raw data. “Who other than engaged city-hacker types are going to make use of the data unless it is expressed in a form that is valuable?” he asks. “Without that the data is pretty exclusive, restricted to council managers and those with the technical knowledge or financial interest in doing something with it.”

There’s a disconnect here. The coalition is encouraging councils to be transparent and accountable and publish open data. And yet, the majority of residents, almost by definition, can’t spend their time pouring over these raw data sets.

“It absolutely is too technical,” says Richard Speigal, chair of independent community group Bath Hacked, whose goal is to translate raw data into useable local apps and web sites. Unlike its equivalents in many other regions, Bath Hacked actually owns the data store, and works closely with the Bath & Northeast Somerset authority. This relationship, argues Spiegal, that gives the local council a bit more perspective on what residents actually want from the data.

“We’ve kept our feet on the ground, worked hard to establish strong community links, used a data store that's open to non-developers and also include a learning track in our events,” he adds. “This has given rise to hugely popular, very simple local tools with tangible benefits: Bathonians can now find a parking spacea place to not get poisoned, see air quality throb or explore their city through the ages. A local startup has already increased sales with open data.”

It’s the sort of return Boris Johnson would be proud of: no one seems to be doing more than Bath Hacked. But where is the value? It costs money to install data stores, and pay staff to release and manage open data sets. Sometimes, the costs run into seven figures. So where’s the return on investment?

 “Quantifying the [return on] civic open data is inherently difficult,” says data expert and evangelist Owen Boswarva. “Personally I'm comfortable that taxpayers are getting value for money from open data, even if the evidence base is a bit amorphous. It's hard to isolate the effects of open data on growth and efficiency within a city economy, but that's equally true of many other policies and inputs.”

For the moment, frontline apps and visualisation services are acting as a shop window. “The area in which open data has most economic potential is location intelligence,” argues Boswarva. “Addressing, geolocation, maps and so on. Local authorities have numerous datasets of this type but are unable to release them as open data because they contain information derived from Ordnance Survey's detailed mapping and address datasets.”

The solution? “We need government to release those key national datasets as open data so that cities can in turn release the local datasets that derive from them.”

It’s worth mentioning a few examples. The London School Atlas is useful for parents but incomplete. While it maps schools, it says little about school attainment – which is, one assumes, what parents really want to know. A standard of living app analysing local areas for crime rates, house prices and amenities, such as illustreets’ Explore England, has obvious value, particularly if you are looking for a new place to live.

There is also live data on river levels, such as The Gauge Map from Shoothill: handy for knowing when to get out the sandbags. In the US there is even a dangerous dogs map in Austin Texas. The only limit, it seems, is imagination.

This whole process is forcing local authorities to change their mindsets – but whether it’ll make them more accountable is not exactly clear.

“It won't happen until local authorities have a mature open data policy, rich data platforms and an engaged community who are prepared to delve into the data,” says Speigal at Bath Hacked. “We concentrate on patiently building the component parts, confident that transparency will come. But to say it happens quickly would be lying. It’ll take years.”

 

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.