New data portal opens doors for research

Studies could be streamlined as city departments upload data to an online portal, researchers say.

Ethan Nelson

When researchers for U-Spatial create highly detailed maps on Minnesota’s solar energy potential, they depend on state-provided open data.

“If [the data] wasn’t open data, there’d be no easy way we could acquire that,” said Len Kne, associate director of the University of Minnesota program.

While Kne’s project used data from a state website, other types of data haven’t been as accessible.

But a data portal approved by the Minneapolis City Council last month will provide access to previously unavailable information, which has the potential to simplify the jobs of other researchers by making available new types of municipal-level data.

The recently passed ordinance requires the city government to post its public data online starting Jan. 1.

Though the policy was crafted with technology developers in mind, University researchers expect the readily accessible data to aid their research.

“The policy will make it a lot easier for academics and journalists,” said Bill Lindeke, a doctoral candidate who conducts research in urban geography. “It’s not that it’s not there; it’s that it’s hard to find.”

The new rule makes Minneapolis the 16th city in the U.S. to create an online portal to which city departments can upload data as they collect it.

Previously, researchers would have to formally request data, Lindeke said.

Earlier this year, Lindeke said he struggled to find traffic data on the city’s website but said the information will be easier to find when the database goes live.

Some University staff who work with public data could see their roles change as the policy takes effect.

The University’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs helps deliver and interpret publicly held data to research organizations, said Kristen Murray, a program developer at the center who helped develop the city’s policy.

She said as city departments put more data online, the center might play a smaller role in retrieving data for clients but a larger role in helping them make sense of it.

“We’ll have to see how the policy unfolds,” she said, “but I think there’s still the need to help people to analyze and visualize data in ways that are useful to them.”

Greater access to data could also lead more people to seek data-driven answers to research questions, she said, which could in turn lead to more work for the center’s employees.

Besides affecting research, Lindeke said the policy will help increase transparency.

“It’s basic democracy,” he said. “This is a great step forward.”

The policy aims to empower citizens and create applications and websites to improve Minneapolis, said Ward 12 City Councilman Andrew Johnson, who helped lead the push for open data.

Though the policy is still in its infancy, he said, it provides a framework for bringing more information to people.

“We’re going to see greater and greater tools being made,” he said.

Otto Doll, the city’s chief information officer, said the policy can provide information about the city on a grander scale.

Rather than providing raw data, both Doll and Lindeke said they’d like the city to include context for the information uploaded to the city’s portal.

“Data collectively represents the state of the city,” Doll said.