City of Austin

Protect your 'Smart' Data by Learning the "Language of the City"

Today’s post is the second in our “SmartSpeak” series, which provides a forum for SmartCities thought leaders to provide guest posts.  The “Austin Series”, a bimonthly feature, is graciously authored by thought leaders within our very own city government.  Today’s post is authored by Ted Lehr, City Data Architect.  It’s a detail-oriented post for those interested in supporting, or engaging in, City projects that leverage new data streams and archives, while shedding light on the mindset that it will take to develop the public-private partnerships necessary to achieve a “Smart City” vision.


SmartSpeak: The Austin Series

Protect your 'Smart' Data by Learning the "Language of the City"

How's this for a nightmare?  You've just spent the last year helping your community and city imagine, design, plan and commence implementation of a great smart city project only to learn that no one budgeted for archiving all that data the project is generating:  "We thought this was for operations?" you are told.  Then,word comes that, "We can only keep six month revolving windows of data, " and that the City will delete data once it ages beyond the window.

That primal scream you're roaring at these irregular and inopportune moments is wholly avoidable.  With foresight, you can institute new approaches to data that support the development of profound and corroborating insights,  behavioral models that lead to improved operations processes, and curated data that can support policy discussions.  But first you need to learn the Secret Language of the City.

Let’s break it down: There are four basic steps to ensuring that a city will maintain the right kind of data archives, and develop the right kind of analysis, to support a “Smart City” vision.  And the core principle that supports all of these steps is understanding a few words of “Cityspeak.”  That is, you need to understand how Cities define and use concepts like “assets”, “valuations”, “costs” and “projects”.   If you don't take the time to express the thing you care about in these terms, you will vastly increase the probability  that the organism we call a "City" will not even detect its existence.

And here are the steps:

  1. Make data an asset

  2. Assign a cost to the asset

  3. Designate, and plan to measure, the value returned for paying that cost

  4. Attach the asset, its cost, and, the appropriate metrics to an existing project

Now, let's consider each of these in order.

Data as an Asset

You can begin to make data exist in the eyes of the City by identifying the physical assets that generate, carry, use or store it. “Assets” as known by cities, and certainly for the City of Austin, are tangible things: signs, roads, computers, swing sets are all assets. But, data? You can't touch data! As a result, it will be difficult to assign it an asset code. The devices that generate or store the data, however, can be treated as assets. So sensors, networks and storage are assets. Even non-touchable cloud storage can be an asset because it has what are known as “physical equivalents”.

Assigning Costs to the Data Assets

The second step is to assign costs to data assets. This step is more straightforward. Costs can be expressed in terms like:  

  • dollars per Gigabyte of storage  

  • dollars per Gigabit per second of network demand

  • dollars per unit of data processing capacity

These costs can be tiered in such a way that helps us budget and evaluate projects more efficiently. For example, raw data from sensors on a city's streets might have one cost. Data combined and curated to produce neighborhood or corridor specific data might have another, larger cost.

Designating the Value Returned from the Data

We next need to answer the questions of, “Why is the city going to spend public dollars on these data assets?” and “What value will the community derive?”  Importantly, the valuation of the return on a city asset does not have to be expressed in financial terms.  For example “values” might include:

  • Reducing pedestrian injuries at intersections

  • Increasing or maintaining neighborhood satisfaction with their local parks

  • Being able to measure, understand, describe and eventually control greenhouse gas emissions

  • Understanding whether City parks and services are used equitably

It is best to describe such values in the context of stated city objectives.  These might be objectives like “reducing traffic fatalities,” “increasing access to affordable health care,” “developing walkable communities,” etc.

Now that you have defined the “value” of your data, make sure that, these valuations are measurable. You will need to define value metrics the City can monitor as well as associated target values, so that the city can assess the return it is getting. For example baselining and tracking pedestrian traffic injuries at a set of intersections with a goal of reducing them by 30% would constitute a value metric and goal.

Attaching the Data Assets to Projects

Congratulations!  Your City can now ‘see’ your assets. But it can’t pay for it yet!  The last thing you need to do is to attach your data assets to an existing, or planned and budgeted, project. Then, your data can live, and you can pursue your most imaginative data science dreams!  

Conclusion:  Don't forget to consider the Data Market

You’ve completed my course today. But there’s a bonus opportunity, for the ambitious: you might ponder developing a cost recovery plan for the data assets. Instead of drawing on traditional revenue like the tax base, perhaps there are fees or other charges you can suggest the City impose on the external use of the data. For example, raw data could be free to the community, while curated or analyzed data could incur a charge. Or, if a business would like to make the data mission critical and therefore requires SLAs on throughput and response time, you could propose a tiered pricing mechanism for these additional premium services.

These are just a few ideas that can help to make the foundational element of the Smart City of the future, data, better available, better curated, and better analyzed. We will need the creativity of thousands of entrepreneurs and officials to effectively leverage data and technology to serve urban residents. But, we cannot get there if we don’t attend to the sometimes boring work of learning to speak the City’s language.

SmartCities, Open Data, and You!

Note from SmartAustin: This is the first post in our new “SmartSpeak” feature, which provides a forum for SmartCities thought leaders to provide guest posts.  The “Austin Series” (also starting today!) will be a bimonthly feature, graciously authored by thought leaders within our very own city government.  Today’s post is authored by Charles Purma, IT Manager with the City of Austin and a leader in the Open Data movement.


open austin.jpg

Austin has been celebrated nationally as an “open dataleader and we, in city government, strongly believe that this success and commitment provide the foundation for the ‘smart city’ we intend to be.  To take just one example, the ATX Hack for Change brings innovators together to pitch, and the develop, projects that leverage our open data ecosystem.  This past year, groups pitched 23 projects leveraging this data (and worked through to prototypes on 19 of them!) at that event. Some interesting projects include (a) using data from various sources to connect Austinites to local, organic produce and (b) utilizing data mapping and monitoring to work to bring Austin's traffic fatalities to zero. Next year’s event is in June and we can’t wait to see what will come down the pike.

The Hack for Change event is one of those ‘tips of the iceberg’ that provide a glimpse into the enormous potential created by five years of public-private collaboration.  We strongly recommend that entrepreneurs and interested citizens take some time to familiarize themselves with the tools and capabilities at their fingertips. . . .  We hope you’ll suggest a project.  But, if nothing else, you will come away informed about some of the key raw materials that will help make Austin a leading 21st century city.  Please be in touch with the nonprofit Open Austin, the planning and logistics leaders for this effort, if you have any questions about this special opportunity.

As you think about projects you and open data your team might undertake, it will be useful to know some of the background of our City’s efforts.  Read on!


Overview and history

The City Open Data Portal currently publishes approximately 400 unique data sets, 314 Charts, and 340 maps using our City Data Portal visualization tools. Our data portal is consistently ranked as one of the top four in the country by the US Cities Open Data Census.

Here’s a brief timeline of our history:

  • 2011: The City of Austin Open Data Portal was launched in conjunction with the City Council’s Open Data Resolution and a memo from the Assistant City Manager.  The Resolution and memo essentially set in motion the proposition that data would be “open by default,” but also memorialized the City’s continuing  commitment and, of course, empowered the core open data team!

  • 2012: The City began a partnership with Code for America to bring nationwide visibility to our Open Data Initiative and bring lean/startup methods into the organization. The partnership led to several civic-based open-source applications that continue to run today, including and several more that are available for anyone to use, reuse and iterate from.

  • 2013: The City Manager formed the Open Data Executive Board.  Members include Assistant City Managers, the Chief Innovation Officer, and director-level executives charged with implementing a citywide framework for open data. The City Manager also released a directive instructing all departments to participate in the initiative

We are proud of where we’ve come.  Today, all city departments are represented on the City Open Data Portal (over 40 members in total) and most actively participate in the open data initiative.  Monthly meetups are held with this network where product demos are given, guest speakers and panels present on industry trends, and project report-outs are provided.  We’ve also begun work on, an Open Data Manual on GitHub.  The best way to stay current with these, and other activities, is to register for a free account with our knowledge-sharing community, powered by Bloomfire, a very cool local firm.


More opportunities to engage

Over the course of the past several year, the City of Austin has hosted several hackathons, data expos, and community outreach events to encourage community software application development. Many of the applications can be found at Open Austin.  All of these projects are based on data from the City Open Data Portal.  Check these out, or see if any of the ongoing projects below excite you.  If they do, please be in touch with (again!) Open Austin or with me at

Another way to get your creative juices flowing is to take a look at some of the ways city departments have taken advantage of increased data availability and the partnerships that openness makes possible.  By looking at the list below, you may get inspired in general, or you may see an opportunity to support an ongoing or recent effort.  Take a look and see what you find!

  • The Austin Fire Department is looking at how to continually improve service response time. The Department is utilizing City data and resources from partners at the University of Texas, Texas State, AT&T and IBM to propose models and even apply for National Science Foundation grants.

  • The Transportation Department, in coordination with local partners, leveraged the City Open Data portal as a key component of its Smart Cities application in 2016

  • The City of Austin formed a partnership with regional government agencies including Capital Metro, Travis County and the State of Texas to share data resources and collaborate on projects. Through this partnership we have federated available data among these agencies and assisted in advancing standards and best practices.

  • The City has organized a group of data experts from every City department to help develop and coordinate the publication of City data sets. We’ve begun using Agile project methods to coordinate activities over 90-day development sprints that have been designed to achieve specific initiative needs. This effort has received national attention and has been featured as a best practice from the Sunlight Foundation and Socrata User Summit.

  • The City has collaborated with the community group Open Austin to develop a unique tool based on the Business Model Canvass to establish a sustainable method to vet and form teams around civic tech projects based on the City’s open data. This effort has been adopted and put into use internationally with users in Japan, Washington D.C., and Detroit, among others.

  • Our office worked with the Budget and Performance Offices to publish the Citywide Dashboard.  We utilized the City Open Data portal as a foundation and our Open Performance module (a Socrata product that sits on top the data portal to provide performance reporting functionality) to provide dashboard visualization.  We also worked with the Sustainability Office to develop a sustainability dashboard that has received national attention.

  • The Open Data team has presented at SXSW, the National Association of Government Web Professionals, the Code for America Summit, the Socrata User Summit, the Government Technology conferences, the White House, and at many other national gatherings, to share its experience and best practices related to open data.


Current challenges

OK, we’ve been trying to rally you to action.  But we also want to be honest about our limitations. So, here goes . . .  Like any very large, diverse organization that has existed for a long time, we have our struggles with legacy systems and mindsets; overall buy-in and adoption; a lack of comprehensive standards, policies, and guidelines; and how we govern and resource our open government/data, emerging technology, smart city, etc. initiatives.  The core Open Data team consists of only four to five people that aren't fully assigned to the effort.  Since many of these challenges are quite complex, the team is often stretched very thin and can only tackle things in small pieces. It’s a challenge for the team to focus on more strategic and innovative projects around data science and analytics, advanced dashboard, data automation, and smart cities. A more formal and fully-staffed program is our mid-term goal.


The future

Remember, the era of the smart city is upon us and data is a critical piece. We’re currently developing relationships with universities, think tanks, non-profits, businesses, and other cities to leverage and maximize all our resources with the clear intent on becoming a leader in this area. More specifically, we’re in the early stages of developing policies, guidelines, agreements, etc. with other entities that will help us to combine city data with other commercial/private data and create a civic data market/platform.  One potential outcome of this would be for the City to find ways to monetize some of our more mission-critical data/information assets. We believe that by being one of the first municipal governments in the country to do something like this, we can provide a replicable example for other Cities (especially those strapped for money) that may find sharing revenues with these platforms to be highly attractive.

The other important part of the future is . . . YOU!  Consider coming to Hack for Change or to an event hosted by Open Austin.  Consider defining a new project.  Please feel free to reach out to our office for more information.  Local government is becoming more and more important, in ensuring quality of life, and enabling local innovation.  Austin needs you and your particular brand of genius!  Please be in touch with me or with one of the excellent groups listed above if you think you can be of service.  We can’t wait to meet you!