For many who commute from Baltimore to D.C., a train commute provides a chance to catch up on a podcast, or maybe on some sleep.
For Justin Elszasz, it’s a chance to dig into the civic data available on Baltimore’s open data portal.
From his blog, The Training Set, everyone can get a window onto Elszasz’s view of the city’s data, whether the topic is parking or segregation. Along with providing a look at what Elszasz is curious about, it also provides a look at what it’s like to work with the data that Baltimore’s government puts out.
A trained mechanical engineer, Elszasz works by day at Navigant Consulting, which has a contract with the U.S. Department of Energy to help create energy efficiency standards and policy. While a grad student at Columbia University, he began working with open data and machine learning at the school’s Sustainable Engineering Lab.
It started with using data for energy consumption forecasting, but as he began to use Python the available fields took on more diversity.
“I’m a pretty curious person, and like seeking out problems and questions regardless of whether they fall in the traditional silo of mechanical engineering or not,” he said. “I want to find problems and see what engineering and data can bring to bear on them.”
The first handful of posts on The Traning Set focus on energy. But around the beginning of 2015, Elszasz started digging into Baltimore’s civic data. And that’s where he started getting some attention.
The first rabbit hole Elszasz dug into was parking citations.
It’s never a sexy issue, but it’s always one that gets people fired up.
As he dug in, Elszasz has found that the number of parking tickets increased dramatically from 2013-2014, and the targeted areas were the usual congested spots like Light Street in Federal Hill, North Charles Street, Fells Point and Harbor East. And that includes his own block of North Charles, in Mt. Vernon.
But before you start thinking this is the tale of another parking violator with an axe to grind, consider what else Elszasz found. The Training Set’s bigger conclusion, which was reached early on, was that the dataset presented by the city was unclear. A dataset labelled parking citations also included information about traffic cameras. And even those numbers were likely incomplete and poorly defined, Elszasz reasoned.
“Unfortunately, the Baltimore open data portal does not provide a data dictionary or substantive description of what all is contained in the dataset and what each field represents,” he wrote.
Thanks to an assist from Baltimore tech community leader Sharon Paley, however, the complaint didn’t fall on deaf ears.
Two days later, Elszasz received a message from Heather Hudson, the Chief Data Officer in the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology. She had corrected some of the issues.
“Thanks to your article, I have added a more informative description of the dataset, as well as short descriptions of the currency columns you mentioned,” Hudson wrote. “I hope that this helps users better understand the data presented.”
Out of the Block
Sealing his place apart from the rabble rousers, he dug into the claims of some of the actual rabble rousers.
A City Paper article detailed complaints from citizens about being targeted for tickets in the 4200 block of Wickford Road. Residents of the Keswick neighborhood said they were ticketed overnight for parking with two wheels over the curb, and facing the wrong direction. This was an outrage. Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke took up their fight like a dutiful local politician, but Elszasz found that other spots were getting hit much worse.
Elsasz presented the data on The Training Set. “It truly pales in comparison to some of the blocks I’ve been looking at recently,” he noted.
“Overall, this article and the residents on this block appear to be making something out of nothing,” he writes.
He got in touch with City Paper reporter Edward Ericson Jr., who wrote in another piece that the original article was designed to be a “light-hearted look look at the lengths city councilmembers are required to go on behalf of constituents who are inconvenienced by tickets.” To Ericson, the data “confirms what City Paper reported, right down to our tone,” he wrote.
Save the Data
He may have been on the same page with Ericson after all, but it is Clarke’s reasoning that Elsasz is really interested in. If she and other policymakers were using data, he said, they could be focusing limited time on issues in a manner that is proportional to the size of the problem.
We couldn’t help but take note of the fact that Elsasz’s examinations come as reports have surfaced that the city government’s data-based policy program, known as CitiStat, has been meeting less and less.
The Baltimore Sun detailed a City Council meeting last week, where Clarke grilled CitiStat director Mark Grimes, saying the agency is “barely operating at all.”
Nevertheless, Elsasz is continuing to make recommendations to the city about Open Baltimore, and wants to keep pushing policymakers to look at data.
With presidential campaign season ramping up this week, a post on The Training Set called for the start of a new campaign encouraging candidates to “Show Your Work.” Elsasz is calling on politicians to provide annotated transcripts for their speeches, showing where their “facts” came from.
“If elementary school kids can show their work on math problems and high schoolers can cite their references in English papers, surely our politicians can follow their lead,” he wrote.