Using the City of Austin Open Data Portal

This post is a transcript from Rick McDonald’s presentation at
The Austin Homegrown API Meetup in September 2019.


I’m here tonight to talk about City of Austin’s Open Data Portal. Are there any city of Austin employees here tonight? Okay, I’m going to be perfectly honest then, I love working with those guys. I really do. So I have been volunteering with the city of Austin for probably about two years now on different projects and open data portal is just kind of one of my passions, and they provide opportunities for citizens like myself to just come in and kind of use the skills that we have to contribute to the city and kind of give back.

I was looking for way to give back, so let me move through before I start talking before my slides come up. So like I said, my name’s Rick McDonald. I just put in my email address. My background is in digital marketing, very, very much in technical documentation, and now I’m bootstrapping with some other people from a hackathon, a maintenance and inspection voice solution for diesel trucks. That’s super interesting because hardware for me in the past has been development boards and reference designs, and now it’s like firetrucks and stuff, which is super cool to play with and just be around and take pictures of. I say, “Oh wow,” all the time.

And so let’s see, next one. So a couple of years ago, almost three years ago now, my daughter said to me, “You need to find a way to contribute locally.” She also said, “You’re driving me crazy.” So I started looking for a way here in Austin, in the local community to find some way to give back, to find some kind of outlet for my energy that I wanted to use for volunteering.

The first place that I found was Open Austin. So their mission is to help communities and governments exchange ideas through the use of data, technology and design. And essentially what it is is a bunch of techies from here in Austin who get together twice a month, once at Terrazas Library over on the East side, and usually on the second time during the month is at the old library, the Faulk Library downtown, which is now the city of Austin’s Technology Center, Innovation Center, Office Of Design and Development. The names change, but that’s where the web people are.

So Open Austin runs, kind of manages, GitHubs and they run projects. And this one that I’m showing here is scraped. And that’s from someone that the ShipEngine folk may know is Remy. And I don’t know Remy’s last name, he’s like Madonna to me, he’s just Remy. And he’s fantastic.

So it’s just, and everybody in Austin says, “Oh, I know that guy.” So this is a project that’s he’s currently working on to make it easier to get data about a really kind of sad subject, traffic fatality information. But it’s not a downer. It’s really a good thing that he’s doing. And he runs great projects and then there’s a bunch of them. There’s community related things, there’s things for education. So Open Austin, Google it, it’s in there and it’s worth going to one meeting just to kind of see if you like it. You’ll find kindred spirits there.

The other spot that I volunteer with is Austin Free-Net and I met them at the first hackathon that I attended, and they have been around since about 1995 and their mission is to provide technology training, computer access to the community, fostering skills that enable people to succeed in the digital age. And mainly what that means to me is to bridge the digital inclusion gap that is happening.

I love the velocity the technology is on, but I don’t want to leave behind segments of the population that can really benefit from technology.

And they do a lot of training and different programs. But the one that hits home with me is just going over to the DeWitty Center on a Rosewood Avenue and sitting down for three hours, one afternoon a week, and just answering questions from anyone that comes into the lab. They’ve got a little lab in there, just a room with 16 computers and anyone can come in and get help, figure something out. I can unlock your phone. Let me tell you, if you have an Android phone, if I can unlock it, it’s not your phone because I have done it all. I’ve been through every process.

But you just kind of answer questions and I’ve had a 98 year old man come in that needed help with spreadsheets and unlocking his Yahoo account, which had been locked for a year. And then people coming in that have just never used computers before. People that are coming out of prison that are or get out of prison or county or state jail or something like that. They’re in a halfway house down in Del Valley and they tell them you need to get online, get a job application, start looking for a job. And they don’t like, “I don’t know what to do.” So they come in and we just kind of help them out and help kind of step by step what they need to do. That’s a lot longer than I planned to talk about that.

Anyway, what I’m here to talk about tonight is data.austintexas.gov, so that’s the City of Austin’s Open Data Portal. So this is what the Open Data Portal looks like. It’s a subdomain of the city of Austin’s website.

It’s a solution, provided by Socrata. So this is something that, this is a service that they’re using to host the Open Data Portal. And Socrata does this for a number of cities nationwide, and this is the layout that the city of Austin has selected.

And so these boxes, they’re really just kind of filters. The top row is some filters for current, most used data or most popular data and new data. And then the learn button there, I’ll show that in a minute. All data is where you guys would all be interested in because that’s like boom, that’s all the data sets, 3700 and something datasets that you can travel through at your heart’s desire.

So the ‘Learn’ button there will take you to another sub domain which has some training information, information about how to use the API, beginner type information. You guys are probably not going to be that interested in it, but you couldn’t go to the developer docs and things like that. But it is great for people who don’t really understand what a data portal is.

Learn button there will take you to another sub domain which has some training information, information about how to use the API, beginner type information. You guys are probably not going to be that interested in it, but you couldn’t go to the developer docs and things like that. But it is great for people who don’t really understand what a data portal is.

And there’s a lot of those people.

And, that’s who I kind of represent— people, who are active in the community who could benefit from the information that’s available on this portal.

But think because they’re not data scientists, they don’t belong here. And my message to them is if you can run a spreadsheet, you can use this day to, you can sort and filter, you know with some… And so those are the types of people that you can really help, and I’ll give you my call to action at the end of this.

One of the bottom rows there is it takes you directly to Capital Projects of Austin. So this is built on open data and this just gives you a really nice interface to go through and kind of find the area where you live, see what Capitol Projects are underway, what’s planned, what’s completed, lots of information. Way more than I understand, but it’s a really nice presentation.

And one of the people that I talked to on a recent project was Jimmy Flannigan—the council member, he’s a data guy. And it was really interesting to talk to him and he’s all over this open data, the open data portal. He really sees the value in it because it answers questions for his constituents. He can say, “I’m sending you a link. The information is there,” which is really nice, so you don’t have to argue with the Nextdoor people about what’s happening in the neighborhood and facts are our friends and these are facts. Sorry if there’s Nextdoor people here, especially my neighbors.

This is another one, just a quick, this is the Austin Finance Online. Lots of really interesting information here about procurement, about how they plan things that you can kind of dive into and really go deep if that’s your thing. But a nice clean presentation of the data, but it’s based on data in the data portal.

Then when you get to kind of all of the categories here, this is like showing you all the datasets. There’s a 3,676 currently, those are datasets, maps, charts, all of the stuff and it’s also, there’s federated data in there from a data.texas.gov and something else. I think the health, something from the health department or something like that. So there’s some other stuff that’s federated in there as well, but the majority of it is data sets from the City of Austin.

So there’s all these categories that you can filter by. Those are on the left. All of these city departments are contributing to the open data portal. There’s a lot there. They’re doing their best. It’s not all really clean data. It’s not all the same, but it’s there.

Having a City provide open data to its citizens is really important. Just get it out there, and we’ll figure out what to do with it.

That’s kind of the way that I feel about it. But they’re getting better, they’re setting goals, and they’re working towards them.

And the people of the City are really, really nice to work with too. There’s some really cool tech people. I don’t know everybody that works at the City, but the people that I do know, I really have enjoyed working with. And then over at the DeWitty Center, that’s a city of Austin facility.

Here’s an example of a drill down into the datasets.

Everybody understands animal metadata, right? People understand dogs and cats. Kids understand dogs and cats. So this is a great way to introduce students to what working with data. They may not be that interested about your business API, but I can show them cats and they get in it. They like it. Cats on the internet, and you know we’re no different here in Austin, dogs are in there too. They’re just running up a little short.

So here, these are some of the the animal services datasets that are available. This is an example of Austin’s found pets map, which is built on a dataset, so it’s showing the map of some recently found pets and then it’s also showing the the data down below it.

This is another drill down a little further into the data set itself. This is Austin animal center outcomes. These are a lot more heartwarming than the intake stories, but they’ve got outcome stories, they’ve got intake stories. They really collect a lot of data. People in Austin love their pets and are worried about their dogs, and they really do a good job of kind of collecting the data. And they got bats, chickens. I mean it’s not just dogs and cats, if an animal’s down, they’re in the dataset here, in most cases I think. If they’re down in a public location, and I’ll show you something else in just a minute.

City of Austin also has a GitHub, so github.com/cityofAustin. You can scroll through there. You can see the projects that are available. You can freely contribute to these. They are very responsive, and I go in there and contribute some of them, but it’s interesting to see the projects that they’re working on.

Now, I’ll go into transportation.austintexas.io. This is a dashboard that’s built by the people in the transportation department. This is their data and technology services. Great innovative bunch of people that I really love, and I would love that their goals are—as a documentation person—the goals are to destroy all paper and spreadsheets, make IT systems talk to each other to be very open and to build the best digital services team in the city of Austin. So I really can get behind goals like that!

This is a dashboard that they’ve built on open data, so you can go through and if you’re into traffic signals and stuff, which I kind of am, you can go in and look at all the signals and turn them, kind of flip them on and off in the area. Not turn the signals themselves on, but you can see the of the signals.

Next, next time I’ll get that access. Here’s just an example of the device status. And this is showing closed circuit camera of 35th and Lamar, you can drill down into your neighborhood, you can see different sensors that they have and signal, if signals are out, all kinds of stuff. It’s just nerdy.

This is a dockless data visualization. So they call this micro mobility, so this is scooters. Everybody loves scooters, right? So this is showing scooter information and this is a, my friend Mateo worked really hard on this with other people in the it transportation department. And this is showing 2019 data for scooter trips and within the areas. And it’s really, it’s pretty cool to go in and turn this data on and off and look at different areas.

So my call to action is to use the city of Austin’s Open Data Portal, and tell stories about your community.

That’s a great way to tell the data story is to tell it about where we live. That’s a really great intro. Teach others about it, use our local data to teach kids, students, whatever, share your knowledge with other people.

Just really quick—I’m almost done. These are some of the institutions that have used the City of Austin’s Open Data Portal. I did a presentation for one of the commissions earlier this year and this is just a couple of sites for them. Public schools that are using the data portal, colleges and universities. There are a bunch.

So all of these shy universities have logged in like over the first, I think this was Q1 of 2019, so they’d come in and then some government had also logged into do whatever. And then I was shown an example of how you could engage kids with data. And so I built a name, I used the names of the cats in the animal center, like by most popular.

So Lucy is the most popular name for cats in the animal center. And then I made it in the shape of a cat… and it’s probably the greatest thing I’ve ever done, and that’s it.

Thank you.

View the video from Rick’s presentation


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