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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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It's not just City Hall that's opening its curtains to the public. Late last year, MARTA finally released information including details about its schedule and real-time bus locations, allowing programmers to make apps and programs that help people use the transit system and attract new riders. The Atlanta Regional Commission, the metropolitan planning agency that for decades has been a data powerhouse, invested in purchasing proprietary real-time traffic data to measure travel patterns. This summer, the state Environmental Protection Division plans to unveil a website that highlights reported illegal tire dumps, landfills, recycling centers, and manufacturers that reuse scrapped products.

Some of these efforts empower people to take charge and find solutions for community issues that, for whatever reason, have been overlooked or ignored at the local level. With the help of the GA Tires app, Peoplestown residents frustrated by streets dotted with scrap tires can now document the litter in a photo-filled database. They can present that evidence to elected officials or police to investigate.

"If you show someone data, it has to be accepted," says Jack Reed, the director of GSU's geospatial lab and one of the app's developers.

Making data available to the public also gives cash-strapped governments the freedom to let citizens and outside organizations solve problems. In February, Invest Atlanta, the city's economic development agency, helped organize Atlanta's first-ever Govathon, a 24-hour hackathon where tech-minded individuals came together to turn bureaucratic data into something useful.

Among the best apps developed was Crime Syndicate, a free Web-based and smartphone program that allows people to access police reports online and to report crime. Atlanta Police Department Major Joseph Spillane, one of the officers involved with the app, says it could ultimately save the APD "about $200,000" by reducing equipment and staffing costs. It would also cut some red tape involved with obtaining police reports. The Govathon also led to the creation of three other programs that will soon allow users to search city park amenities, report vacant homes in blighted areas, and rate Atlanta's customer service.

As city officials, businesses, and researchers increasingly rely on big data, the potential downsides and inevitable questions of privacy need to be addressed. For some efforts, particularly those involving transportation, collecting data might require purchasing instruments, devices, or proprietary information, such as those real-time traffic counts.

Without funding to carry out data-backed projects, all the city has are reams of information, some of which is potentially embarrassing. Data does little if city leaders don't follow through on the findings. For example, the state EPD already boasts a massive list of illegally dumped tire sites. It knows where the problems are. But thanks to the Legislature's habit of dipping into a trust fund set up to pay for tire cleanups, the money has dwindled and the problem rarely gets addressed. Or gets worse. For the upcoming year, state lawmakers have set aside roughly $340,000 — enough to clean 11 of the state's 301 known problem sites.

Government agencies also have to be careful about revealing citizens' private information, especially when dealing with police reports. Simply put: All data must be protected.

"The level of detail you have is amazing," says Guensler, whose cameras may document license plates and private property as they look at sidewalk cracks. "It's scary how much information [you gather]."

Although Spillane says "almost everything written by the [Atlanta] Police Department" is subject to open records requests, some info will be redacted as a precautionary measure. They'll also work to make sure the data is not mined and wrongfully exploited by outsiders. The city's finance department, Pinan says, would also withhold sensitive information from its open data portal such as social security numbers. It's those kinds of precautions that need extra consideration to protect sensitive information.

Atlanta has a long way to go before its capabilities approach those of other big data programs. Last fall, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg created a $1 million department dedicated to data, where approximately six next-generation "quants" work every day to better understand how NYC works. These new-age mathematicians track down code violations, help emergency crews respond faster to natural disasters, and make the city's complex operations run smoother and save cash.

It's not just New York that's ahead of the curve. Other cities including Chicago, Washington, D.C., and even Dubuque, Iowa, have used big data to enforce billboard codes, make public finance records more transparent, and reduce utility costs, respectively. Earlier this month, President Barack Obama signed an executive order requiring the federal government to make more public data available.

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