from the coming-soon:-NYC-says-it-can-afford-any-more-transparency dept
The following story -- sent in by an anonymous Techdirt reader -- shows the power of opening up government data for examination by citizens... as well as the reason many government agencies may be reluctant to do so.
Ben Wellington, a research analyst who has used New York City's open data to push for policy changes, runs the I Quant NY blog. Looking through the city's parking ticket data, he found some addresses were listed on an extremely high number of tickets for blocking pedestrian ramps.
What I found when I dove into the data surprised me. To start, I found the top address where this ticket were given: in front of 575 Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn, where over $48,000 in parking fines were issued in the last 2.5 years.
Now, before anyone shouts that the people blocking pedestrian ramps got exactly what they deserved, Wellington points out that sidewalk cutouts are not automatic no-parking zones. Only certain ones are.
As of late 2008, in NYC you can park in front of a sidewalk pedestrian ramp, as long as it’s not connected to a crosswalk. It’s all written up in the NYC Traffic Rules, and for more detail, take a look at this article. The local legislation making these parking spots legal was proposed by Council Member Gentile, and adopted by the Department of Transportation before it ever made it for a vote.But it's the legal parking spots that seem to be receiving the most traffic enforcement attention by NYPD officers. The top four spots on the list of ticketed addresses were all legal. So were others Wellington checked. In fact, legal parking spaces appeared to be a rather lucrative cash generator for the city.
I then selected 30 random spots that had received 5 or more tickets over the time period, and based on Google Maps found that all of them appeared to be legal parking spots! (Randomly selecting spots with a single ticket in the database showed some illegal spots as well, so I chose 5 as a conservative cutoff.)It all adds up to nearly 2,000 tickets and $1.7 million a year in bogus parking tickets. Wellington alerted the city and the NYPD. Unexpectedly, the NYPD responded and promised to fix the problem.
[T]he majority of summonses written for this code violation were written by police officers. As a result, the department sent a training message to all officers clarifying the rule change and has communicated to commanders of precincts with the highest number of summonses, informing them of the issues within their command.As Wellington notes, this is the power of open data. If the government puts more eyes on its problems, it can start fixing them sooner. Transparency is a great thing. New York City suddenly has more legal parking spaces. Well, it's had them for six years but people parking legally were still getting ticketed. Wellington points out the NYPD should be congratulated for not only acknowledging the mistake, but responding positively. Other agencies Wellington has worked with have been far more reluctant to accept responsibility, much less act quickly to correct errors.
Thanks to this analysis and the availability of this open data, the department is also taking steps to digitally monitor these types of summonses to ensure that they are being issued correctly.
The downside is that someone's going to take a look at budget sheets and wonder how this $1.7 annual "shortfall" is going to be offset. And when that happens, transparency and accountability are often the first items placed on the chopping block. Someone's going to want to examine the cost of the city's commitment to open data and weigh that against efforts like Wellington's, which "take money" out of the city's pockets. Hopefully, New York City won't roll back its transparency commitment and will instead view things like these as a necessary part of the accountability equation.