traffic headed into Austin, Texas (Philip Lange/Shutterstock.com)

Austin opens data to transportation projects

The city of Austin, Texas, began the journey into open data in 2011, posting 25 datasets in an open portal.  Today, there are over 400 sourced datasets from various city departments and offices.

The latest addition to the city's open data portal provides data on the 2016 Mobility Bond program -- $720 million worth of transportation and mobility improvements.  The Project Explorer tool allows the public to drill down into details on the regional, corridor and local mobility projects to learn about specific construction plans, including budgets, maps and progress reports.

The bond program is the single largest voter-approved bond program in Austin's history.  The city has set aside $101 million for regional improvements, $482 million for corridor improvements on major roadways and $137 million for mobility enhancements such as sidewalks, urban trails and bikeways.

While the primary objective of the Mobility Bond program is reducing congestion and delays at intersections, Austin officials are looking into smart city initiatives related to traffic signals and buses.

“Buses have a harder time getting back into lanes of travel so we are looking at prioritization methods that allows them to get back into traffic better,” Sara Behunek, public information specialist at Austin’s Capital Planning Office, told GCN.  “We have a division within our Transportation Department, which is specifically responsible for traffic flow, managing and controlling the traffic signals, so those types of upgrades are being considered.”

The Capital Planning Office worked with the city’s Transportation and Public Works departments to create the Project Explorer site over the course of five months.  Both the 2016 Mobility Bond website and Project Explorer tool were developed in partnership with Socrata, which also supports Austin's open-data portal and open-performance platforms.

The additional transparency into government operations, Behunek said, has provided unforeseen benefits by cutting down on data entry and data duplication.

“In many cases, the projects move very fast, and our project managers are so focused on getting the projects off the ground" that updating the data in the system was not always a top priority, Behunek said. 

Now project managers are required to update their progress regularly, so the data  automatically gets updated in the office’s system of record and on the public-facing site.

The capital projects information is also available for analysis in Austin’s open data portal, which offers a number of transportation, health, neighborhood and public safety datasets.  Open-performance and finance tools let users track various city initiatives and monitor purchasing.

“The capital planning, open budget and open performance tools, which were launched in the past six to eight months, are symbols of the maturity of our program,” said Matthew Esquibel, the city’s corporate IT manager for internet applications and open government.

Since 2013, Esquibel’s office has led 90-day sprints to help agencies prioritize opening data.   Part of Austin’s most recent sprint was to find a way to quantify the impact of the open data portal on city departments and offices. While the city doesn’t have any data on how the open data portal is helping to reduce public inquiries, Esquibel said he has heard from various departments anecdotally that the numbers of public records requests have gone down. 

“One of the things that we are working in the current sprint is the ability to measure efficiency for putting the data out there proactively, so we don’t have to react" individually to residents who want the same information, Esquibel said.  Efforts are also underway to get feedback on the sprints to learn what works best for agencies. 

The city hosts monthly public meetups where officials review the progress of open data initiatives and get feedback on information residents would like to see on the portal.

About the Author

Sara Friedman is a reporter/producer for GCN, covering cloud, cybersecurity and a wide range of other public-sector IT topics.

Before joining GCN, Friedman was a reporter for Gambling Compliance, where she covered state issues related to casinos, lotteries and fantasy sports. She has also written for Communications Daily and Washington Internet Daily on state telecom and cloud computing. Friedman is a graduate of Ithaca College, where she studied journalism, politics and international communications.

Friedman can be contacted at sfriedman@gcn.com or follow her on Twitter @SaraEFriedman.

Click here for previous articles by Friedman.


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