The L.A. Times had a nice editorial on Thursday (Oct 30) encouraging City Hall to make its data available to the public. As you know, fellow Citizens, we’re all in favor of making data public, particularly if the public has already picked up the bill and if no individual’s dignity will be compromised. For me this editorial comes at a time when I’ve been feeling particularly down about the quality of public data. As I’ve been looking around for data to update my book and for the Mobilize project, I’m convinced that data are getting harder, and not easier. to find.
More data sources are drying up, or selling their data, or using incredibly awkward means for displaying their public data. A basic example is to consider how much more difficult it is to get, say, a sample of household incomes from various states for 2010 compared to the 2000 census.
Another example is gasbuddy.com, which has been one of my favorite classroom examples. (We compare the participatory data in gasbuddy.com, which lists prices for individual stations across the U.S., with the randomly sampled data the federal government provides, which gives mean values for urban districts. One data set gives you detailed data, but data that might not always be trustworthy or up-to-date. The other is highly trustworthy, but only useful for general trends and not for, say, finding the nearest cheapest gas. ) Used to be you could type in a zip code and have access to a nice data set that showed current prices, names and locations of gas stations, dates of the last reported price, and the username of the person who reported the price. Now, you can scroll through an unsorted list of cities and states and get the same information only for the 15 cheapest and most expensive stations.
About 2 years ago I downloaded a very nice, albeit large, data set that included annual particulate matter ratings for 333 major cities in the US. I’ve looked and looked, but the data.gov AirData site now requires that I enter the name of each city in one at a time, and download very raw data for each city separately. Now raw data are good things, and I’m glad to see it offered. But is it really so difficult to provide some common sensically aggregated data sets?
One last example: I stumbled across this lovely website, wildlife crossing, which uses participatory sensing to maintain a database of animals killed at road crossings. Alas, this apparently very clean data set is spread across 479 separate screens. All it needs is a “download data” button to drop the entire file onto your hard disk, and they could benefit from many eager statisticians and wildlife fans examining their data. (I contacted them and suggested this, and they do seem interested in sharing the data in its entirety. But it is taking some time.)
I hope Los Angeles, and all governments, make their public data public. But I hope they have the budget and the motivation to take some time to think about making it accessible and meaningful, too.