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In Cincinnati’s mission to become a smart city, public data is critical to its success

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In Cincinnati, city officials are pulling from reams of data to solve many of the problems of city life, from public safety and health, to offering better response times to services such as filling potholes and cleaning up green spaces.

Since 2014, the city has been focused internally, to uncover the wealth of data at its disposal and how to use it. That is now underway with dashboards of open source data available, so the city is looking externally to add more services such as broadband, public Wi-Fi, air quality alerts, traffic light management in real time, and gunshot detection technology, said Cincinnati City Manager Harry Black, who attended the Smart Cincy Summit this week in the newly revamped Over-the-Rhine district in Cincinnati.

“Clearly our society is evolving. We’re going to the next generation of mankind and society and technology is clearly playing a major role in that,” Black said. The next step is an RFQ (Request for Qualifications) with a deadline of May 26, 2017. The RFQ is part of the smart city initiative and it’s for the deployment of Wi-Fi and broadband throughout the city. The city is sending vendors who can supply the city with the needed tech.

SEE: Smart cities: The smart person’s guide (TechRepublic)

Cincinnati feels pressure to step up the technology push because Columbus, Ohio, roughly two hours northeast, won last year’s $40 million Smart City Challenge from the US Department of Transportation. With Columbus planning to become the nation’s first city to fully integrate self-driving cars, connected vehicles, and smart sensors into its transportation network, it leaves Cincinnati officials anxious to create their own version of a smart city.
P.G. Sittenfeld, Cincinnati city councilman, convened the city’s first smart cities working group. At the recent Smart Cincy summit, he said, “the future is going to be far more high tech, far more internet based, far smarter than what we’ve seen in the past…the smart future that we envision here in the city of Cincinnati includes everything from internet in every home, to closing that digital divide once and for all.”

The digital divide is a common term used to describe the gulf between high- and low-income Americans’ ability to access the internet. Many children have been left behind in school because they cannot access the internet at home in order to do homework. And job seekers without internet access are at a disadvantage when searching for employment. Cincinnati is working with Cincinnati Bell and others to close that gap by putting together plans to assist low-income individuals with getting broadband service at home.

Leigh Tami joined the city of Cincinnati as its chief performance officer about one year ago, and as soon as she started her job, she began assessing the available data, how it could be analyzed, and how it could be used to improve the city and measure performance, as well as citizen engagement.

SEE: Video: Cincinnati’s deep dive into smart city data (TechRepublic)

“We have been pulling in data from all over the city, we process it, we normalize it, to make sure we compare apples to apples or oranges to oranges and then we’re automating the publication to our open data portal as well as our Cincy Insights dashboard portal,” she said.

Data is analyzed from crime, services, EMS, fire, police, and customer requests for pothole and sidewalk repair and even the GPS data from city vehicles such as snowplows and street sweepers. The data is available on dashboards on the city portal, so that private citizens can access it and download it for their own use.

The data includes geocodes and other information to make it valuable for analysis. “As we started pulling things in and used Tableau, which is our primary visualization tool, I realized we really had something, we could make something really incredible. We could start pulling in all of this data and automate the push for data to us. We have it, we’re working on how to clean it up and do analysis with it. We’re working toward the capability to do some really cool stuff with this,” Tami said.

“Something we do with all of our data is we normalize the addresses. Everything is geocoded and we can link to things from addresses. One of the things we’re building is looking at customer service requests and health clinic patient outcomes,” she said.

By looking at the addresses of particular requests for service, city officials can tell whether a particular building has multiple requests such as for dealing with mold, litter, or bedbugs, and what illnesses such as asthma and respiratory problems might be associated with it.

“We’re really getting to a point where we’ve processed so much data so we can look at an area and say, ‘What is the street quality here? Do we have a lot of potholes?’ One of the most famous dashboards on our inside portal is our heroin overdose tracker—all EMT responses to heroin. Of course, in this area it’s a huge problem. We’ve been working with one of the social service agencies and they’re figuring out where to target their training as a result of our data, and they’re getting to areas where there’s more likely to be activity,” Tami said.

SEE: Video: How open source data is helping Cincinnati (TechRepublic)

Brandon Crowley, the city’s chief data officer, works with Tami and he said that the city now has 16 dashboards after launching the first on December 7, 2016. The dashboards have received 56,000 online visitors since the launch. The open data portal launched in 2014, and it has an API so that coders can go into the API endpoint, which is provided by Socrata.

The raw data behind the visualizations is available through the open portal on the platform. There, developers can also access API documentation, download a Tableau workbook, or download relevant files, Crowley said. The data is user friendly, and someone doesn’t have to be a high-end tech coder to play with the data, since it’s available on Excel spreadsheets.

“Transparency is critical to the vitality of local government as well as the federal government. I think the more we are able to release data and let people take deep dives into data, they can help spread the gospel about what is going on in their immediate community. The release of data in a public matter is critical to the success of any smart city initiative,” Crowley said.

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