November 16, 2016

Penn GIS Day 2016: How Will Open Data Drive Government and For-Profit Innovation?

past event


Penn GIS Day, held in conjunction with the National GIS Day celebration, focuses annually on real-world applications and innovations stemming from uses of Geographic Information Systems. This year, speakers discussed the importance of open data in public and private organizations for driving innovation. Speakers included keynote address Robert Cheetham, President and CEO, Azavea; panelists Stacey Mosley, Founder,; Tom Shenk, Chief Data Officer, City of Chicago; and Andrew Turner, Director of ESRI Research and Development Center. The speakers were introduced by PennIUR Co-director Susan Wachter.

In his keynote address, Cheetham discussed several emerging trends in the geospatial world today; networked collaborations, through applications like “GitHub” allow people to more effective build things together; new infrastructure, such as more globally-available, high-speed wireless internet or commercialized drone use, can lead to rapid innovation; more web-based GIS tools allow more people to learn and use the technology; light-weight programming, a term her coined to describe the increase in non-programmers who can apply python, SQL, and other forms of programming to their spatial analysis, allows people to develop technological innovations without having to actually become a programmer; open source data standards have majorly shifted in the past decade, so that now businesses use it, the government is starting to use it, and more grass roots organizations are gaining access to these tools; user-centered design allows for more people to understand and utilize technologies; and last, the proliferation of data science allows government and businesses to improve efficiency and increase innovation. He concluded with the please to make open data the default. Cheetham’s talk set the stage for panelists from government and business to discuss how they’re using open data in accordance with these trends.

Mosley, who quit her job with the city of Philadelphia to start in 2015, described the challenges of starting an open data-based business. Describing the process as a series of “sprints and marathons,” she highlighted the importance of reliable data, access to data, and ability to enrich current market as cornerstones to business success when using data and spatial analysis. She emphasized that standards for data are improving overall, but the increase in start-up organizations in the US has increased competition for payable services.

Next, Shenk showed the audience the City of Chicago’s new open data platform called He highlighted some of the data’s most important features, such as the sheer quantity of data (touting that currently Chicago has 6 million rows of data on crime alone). He described the platform’s innovative live release of information to improve transparency. The online platform provides raw data as well as contextualized data so that a variety of organizations around the city can utilize the information based on their needs. Shenk also highlighted the platform’s ability to use predictive analytics for more effective forecasting, giving the example of food inspections by the Health department, which conducts 1,200 inspections in 2 months with 56% accuracy. The predictive analytics program through found 69% of violations.

Andrew Turner concluded the panel presentations by discussing public-private partnerships and the growth of public information infrastructure. He explained that 95% of the US government uses ESRI to measure parcel data, so his organization is seeking to improve web design for data sharing, addressing the needs of the customer’s customers for better product delivery, and tapping the “cognitive surplus” for improved innovation. To explain this phenomenon, Turner illustrated that the average adult spends 2.8 hours a day watching TV, and it took 100 million hours total to write Wikipedia, so if more Americans spent their time investing in this technology and less in TV, what could we get done? This idea of “community as a science” can help improve government data, increase open crowd-sourced data and citizen surveys, and provide community analysis for more efficient, rapid innovation.

Following the panel presentations, Ken Steif, MUSA Program Director, led a moderated discussion regarding the future of open data. The panel discussed the importance of privacy and potential ethical breaches from using open data, domain knowledge, and what context should people learn the data in – whether it be health and epidemiology, transportation, statistics, real estate, demographics, machine learning or user interface design.






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