In October 2016, as Mayor Bill Peduto was approaching the final year of his first term, the city’s Department of Innovation and Performance debuted a new app called Burgh’s Eye View.
The app is an interactive map that displays different city-related data sets: 311 requests (non-emergency municipal services like reporting graffiti), information about building permits, code violations, public-safety incidents, arrests, city assets, and public records on property in the city. Last summer, the app was listed as “one of the top ten data applications in the world” by WeGo, an international organization that promotes resources for smart cities.
Burgh’s Eye View is one of the many transparency initiatives Peduto has launched since taking office in 2014. During his campaign, improving government transparency and accountability had been top priorities, in stark contrast to his notoriously tight-lipped predecessor, Luke Ravenstahl. But while transparency and accountability are charming political talking-points, it was unclear exactly how mayor-elect Peduto would live up to those goals.
In his first year as mayor, Peduto clarified his intentions by establishing the Department of Innovation and Performance. That department, which had a total 2017 budget of $10,381,964, was created to “foster technology innovation in city government and the broader community, and facilitate efficient and effective city services by supporting data-driven decision making and continuous process improvement.”
While such efforts have earned their fair share of praise, critics wonder whether these accomplishments have amounted to more than good PR. Some feel the technological achievements are undercut by instances where the administration has been less than transparent. These modernization efforts are impressive, but are they actually helping citizens? Is it true accessibility, or just the appearance of it? How far has the city actually come?
Exploring the story of how Pittsburgh brought its digital presence into the 21st century reveals a complicated picture of an administration making strides in modernization, while falling short in other areas.
- Image courtesy of Internet Archive: Wayback Machine
- City of Pittsburgh website circa 2010
The city’s open-data efforts began in earnest in 2015, when the DIP partnered with Allegheny County and the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research to establish the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center, a platform for sharing city data with Pittsburgh’s citizens.
While the platform was dynamic and detailed, the Data Center struggled to get the information to the general public “beyond a handful of researchers and civic-data enthusiasts,” Mayor Peduto wrote at the time. Building the Burgh’s Eye View app was a way to present the data to Pittsburghers in a more accessible, coherent package.
The next step was bringing the city website out of the dark ages.
- Image courtesy of Internet Archive: Wayback Machine
- City of Pittsburgh website circa 2013
“When we took office in 2014, it was a 1990s website. It was definitely a couple generations behind where you expect a city like Pittsburgh to be,” says Laura Meixell, assistant director of DIP. “There were tens of thousands of pages on the old website. They just never deleted anything. If at some point in 2002, one of the rec centers was closed for a day due to a water leak or something, we still had a web page about it in 2013.”
In August, the city launched a new official website stacked with additional resources: tools to book city facilities, access to budgets dating back every year to 1996 (and even a few from earlier decades), applications for city jobs, snowplow tracking and many, many more.
Done in-house at DIP in less than two years, the redesign took a clean, if a bit trendy, approach to decluttering the site. The images are bigger; there are fewer links scattered across the margins; the fonts are more readable. A search bar asking “what can we find for you?” sits front and center on the landing page. (Meixell jokes that a surprisingly large number of visitors use this feature to find Penguins tickets.)
Scrolling farther down, you’ll see a grid of 24 apps represented with cute, clearly designed logos. There’s one for interactive crime reports (represented by a siren), one for city council’s meeting schedule (a calendar), one for the city’s collection of contracts, called “open book” (an open book). Some are a little insider-baseball, like those labeled CAFR or PAFR (comprehensive annual finance reports and popular annual financial reports, respectively).
The new website is impressive. But Meixell says the administration’s biggest first-term accomplishment is Burgh’s Eye View. Since launching, the app now has more than 30,000 active users.
- Screenshot of City of Pittsburgh website circa January 2018
Compiled from info from the Data Center, Burgh’s Eye View was built to provide frequently requested data directly to citizens, such as property assessments and car-crash data. It’s ideal for mobile (the app, like the website, was designed mobile-first) and is updated every night.
“Data is only as good as it is fresh,” Meixell says.
The map shows the city dotted with different kinds of icons, which was initially intimidating and hard to view. Thanks to an update last summer, the data points were itemized into three types of information: places (bridges, libraries, etc.), parcels (property data) and points (311 requests, arrests, fires, code violations).
There are a number of areas cited by the DIP where these statistics have been, or are in the process of, being used for actual changes on the ground.
One example is related to the opioid crisis. Zan Dodson, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Public Health, used data on the concentration of opioid-related arrests to see which areas could use more “clean needle exchanges, Narcan kits, and readily available medical aid,” according to a DIP blog post from October. Similarly, the RAND Corporation is using city data sets like blighted properties and public-safety statistics to get a more comprehensive picture of inequality in Pittsburgh. Using these indicators, RAND will give Pittsburgh its first “equality score” in 2018.
- Screenshot of Burgh's Eye View app
So far, this work might address the issues only in a research context, but Meixell says the app is regularly used by government departments for boots-on-the-ground changes as well. This includes improving bike safety, reducing blight, and identifying areas of inequality in the city.
Still, criticisms of this administration’s claim of transparency have lingered throughout its first four years. Many have questioned whether the administration is leaning on flashy new technology to give the appearance of accessibility and transparency, without actually delivering.
In 2015, Vic Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, told City Paper, “I think you have to go give kudos to [Peduto for] being more open than his predecessor. But that was a pretty low bar.”
Concerns early in Peduto’s term focused on the city’s response to a police-brutality case at PrideFest in 2014, in which an officer was accused of using excessive force on a teenage girl. The administration promised a quick investigation via an outside firm, but exonerated the officer almost three months later, without releasing video evidence of the altercation. Another early controversy involved Peduto failing to disclose the sources of donations given as part of his appearance on the TV show Undercover Boss, in 2015.
“He’s done things that give him all the appearances of ‘I desire and am attempting to provide transparency,’ [...] but in reality that’s not what’s happening,” Gerald Shuster, a communications professor at the University of Pittsburgh, told CP in 2015.
Most recently, criticism of Peduto’s administration has focused on the city’s bid for Amazon’s HQ2. In November, the city rejected nonprofit news organization PublicSource’s Right To Know request to access Pittsburgh’s pitch. Though many other cities bidding for HQ2 released their pitches to the public, the city defended the rejection by saying that it had signed a non-disclosure agreement with private developers in its pitch. Some considered that explanation a way of passing the buck.
“The only entities that such [non-disclosure] agreements harm are the taxpayers and the residents,” says Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner. “So, they’re bargaining on behalf of the residents, yet not providing transparency.”
“[W]hen you look at some of our largest and most impactful issues in the city, I don’t believe that the rhetoric always matches up with the actions,” says Wagner. “So, to say that you can see where a snow plow is, but you can’t see the agreement with Amazon, I think that’s something that is very telling.”
The administration’s handling of the Amazon pitch might not fit in with a wholly transparent government. A different question is whether the tools implemented in Peduto’s first term are actually helping citizens. Are citizens using the website and its apps? Do they even know they exist?
According to Meixell, the new website has received more than 700,000 unique page views since launching last summer. Those numbers are difficult to contextualize, because citizens wouldn’t need individual tools on a daily basis, but it shows that these resources are being put to use. And Meixell said outreach for new users is an ongoing process. (The DIP has arranged more than 350 outreach meetings since the launch of the Data Center, including via partnerships with Carnegie Libraries to reach populations with less access to internet and computers).
As Mayor Peduto begins his second term, critics will continue to scrutinize whether his administration is living up to its vow of transparency and accountability, and whether the technological innovations are delivering what they promised. For Meixell and the DIP, the next four years will be about employing existing data to affect actual change on the ground.
“That’s a corner that we feel we turned a little bit ago,” says Meixell. “That’s definitely where we want to go.”