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Why Atlanta is taking tiny bits of info very seriously

City Hall throws its arms around hackers and learns to love data

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Deep in a wooded ravine on a vacant parcel in Peoplestown sits a mountain of old tires. There's no telling how long they've been sitting there collecting water, breeding mosquitoes, and sullying the property. Or how many there are.

"That's hundreds. At least 200, maybe more," said longtime community activist Columbus Ward as he escorted volunteers from Georgia State University around the neighborhood.

During previous cleanups of illegally dumped tires, Ward and others would simply drive around and note the locations of the eyesores. In recent years, they started working with volunteers to create a spreadsheet filled with the information.

Now, thanks to the GA Tires app built by Georgia State University's Department of Geosciences, they can create a photo-filled database of problem areas with a couple quick taps on their smartphones. They simply pinpoint their location, enter in the number of tires, snap and upload a photo, and press submit. The data is compiled in a database available to residents, police, elected officials — pretty much anyone.

"It helps us identify places and send volunteers to what we call 'hot spots' to utilize our time better," Ward says. "It tells us how many tires we need to pick up, how many volunteers, trucks, and manpower we need."

Across town, Georgia Tech professor Randall Guensler's research team is outfitting wheelchairs with Toshiba tablets. Over the next few months, dozens of professors, students, and volunteers will push the devices across the city's estimated 2,200 miles of sidewalks. Along the way, the tablets' cameras will record more than 6,000 hours of footage, capturing every inch of public walkways.

"You can't make public policy without data," says Guensler. "You can't do future planning without data. This makes it tenable for everybody."

The painstaking process ultimately will provide Atlanta officials with a comprehensive map showing the condition of the city's sidewalks that the general public will be able to access online. Guensler believes his team will save the city hours of costly labor and give construction workers a clear idea of the needed repairs.

These projects are just two of many local initiatives that involve collecting massive amounts of data in hopes of improving the city. Thanks to several simple-to-use, low- to no-cost programs that have proliferated in the last few years, it's a trend that's becoming more common in cities across the country. Over the past year, tech-savvy Atlantans have joined the growing legions of citizens who, by hobby or profession, take seemingly meaningless data and use it to propose possible solutions for everyday problems. Whether the city will actually follow through on the potential projects — and avoid some privacy pitfalls — remains to be seen.

City governments across the United States have slowly started to use big data to inform public policy over the last three years. In the past, officials didn't always look at the data their departments collected. That resulted in missed opportunities or less-than-informed policy decisions, despite having troves of information available. In most cases, they had difficulty distilling the large amounts of data sitting right in front of them. In Atlanta, City Hall started getting serious about using its data late in Mayor Shirley Franklin's administration.

Those efforts have continued under Mayor Kasim Reed with a rebranded internal team named Focus on Results Atlanta - or FOR Atlanta - that's tasked with measuring how City Hall departments and programs perform.

Later this month, the city's Finance Department is expected to launch a new "open data portal" that will give residents access to Atlanta's revenues, expenses, licenses, debts, awards, and other figures. What started as a project aimed at streamlining massive amounts of open record requests soon turned into a way to create greater transparency — something Atlanta has struggled with over the years.

Chief Financial Officer Jim Beard says the portal will give citizens unprecedented access to "pure data" from his department, which could help reduce costs and improve services. He estimates his staff could save Atlanta between $500,000 and $750,000 by switching to paperless vendor payments, a solution found by taking a more analytical approach to the data. He wants to open his department's doors so that outsiders can bring fresh ideas for cutting costs, improving services, and solving other problems.

While Atlanta has hinted at wholeheartedly embracing data, which Mayor Kasim Reed has backed, the city's initiative is still in its infancy. City officials say that will change as other departments — including police, parks and recreation, watershed, and aviation — eventually follow suit. "The administration took the view from the very beginning that the city's data is public data," says Alfonso Pinan, the city's director of financial systems services.

The Planning Department, working with the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, has rolled out an app called Cycle Atlanta that allows pedalers to record their commutes, document potholes and dangers, and share those findings with City Hall. Officials will be able to use the information to help them plan new bicycling improvements and determine how bikes should factor into other transportation projects.

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