Once Upon a Dataset: Data Storytelling in New York City

March 5, 2015 2:40 pm PST | Data Apps & Visualization, Data as a Service

In an invigorating, entertaining, and well-attended TEDxNewYork talk about open government data in New York City, data scientist Ben Wellington examines open government data from a citizen’s perspective and urges governments to rethink how they provide access to data.

Wellington tells the story of New York City through its open data on his blog I Quant NYC. He’s also a blogger for The New Yorker, and a professor who teaches a statistics course to urban planners and uses real City data sets to “make stats a lot more fun.”

Wellington praises the City of New York for releasing 1,200 datasets on its Socrata-powered portal, NYC Open Data. And re-emphasizes the importance of accessible datasets that can be downloaded and analyzed rather than constrained to static PDFs or –in one case — burned onto a hard drive carried in by a citizen. “Our city budget is only readable right now in PDF form. And it’s not just us that can’t analyze it — our own legislators who vote for the budget also only get it in PDF. So our legislators cannot analyze the budget that they are voting for. And I think as a city we can do a little better than that,” says Wellington.

The maps and diagrams on Wellington’s blog are generated from the City’s open data and tell new and fascinating stories about life in New York:

  • New York City actually has a “rush day” instead of a “rush hour.”
  • The Lower East side of Manhattan has the most bike accidents.
  • Inland waterways in the City are the dirtiest — “Never swim in anything that ends in ‘creek’ or ‘canal.’”
  • One-fifth of emergency room visits from Christmas decorations involve Christmas lights, and one-half involve wreaths, trees, and ornaments.
  • Fire hydrants on two city blocks were generating more than $55,000 in parking tickets a year – with a complaint filed by Wellington, prompting the City to fix the problem quickly.

Wellington urges governments to post accessible data and standardize their formatting and data fields because citizens have many new questions about their communities. “A lot of people see open data as being a watchdog. It’s not, it’s about being a partner. We can empower our citizens to be better partners for government, and it’s not that hard. All we need are a few changes,” he says.

Thousands of New Yorkers are already involved in the open data movement, but Wellington says the next era of open data can prompt even more citizen engagement. “With some small, incremental changes, we can unlock the passion and the ability of our citizens to harness open data and make our city even better, whether it’s one dataset, or one parking spot at a time.”

Watch the TEDx New York talk now

More articles about Ben Wellington and open data:

Village Voice 

Ben Wellington’s columns in The New Yorker

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