Looking Beyond Open City Data

By Kennina Ip

The urban open data movement has grown in the past few years. At the forefront of this movement are cities such as New York, Washington, and Chicago. New municipalities continue to join, even as recently as this October, and many continue to develop platforms to facilitate the movement. Lake County, Illinois, for example, just launched an Open Data Hub, intending to increase accessibility to and searchability of government data. It centralizes a wide variety of data, from health to transportation and government contracts.

There are even cross-city platforms independent from other data collection efforts in these participating cities. The Big Cities Health Inventory Data is an open data platform that provides data from 30 cities across the United States with various health and demographic indicators. The entire dataset is freely available for download: a boon for public health researchers.

But cities should move beyond merely opening up the data. Combining health data with other urban development data such as housing and zoning, transportation, and food security data can create a more comprehensive profile of a city’s health. Though steps have been made in this direction – as evidenced by the most recent open data development in Lake County – more aggressive efforts should be undertaken.

Cities can look to the federal government for guidance. Consider the Transportation and Health Tool (the brainchild of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Transportation, and the American Public Health Association [APHA]), an instrument that integrates health considerations into transportation and community planning. Using this information, the APHA has released several case studies detailing major streets plans, a government policy that outlines the function of a street in a given region. Cities should consider further developing similar programs to supplement the work the federal government has already begun.

Chicago, for instance, developed the Purple Binder platform (now incorporated into a company called Healthify) specifically to address the social determinants of healthcare. By scouring the city for social services and building a referral network while also simultaneously consuming open public health data and collecting their own data to understand the population’s needs better, the platform has served as a resource to many in the Chicago community.

As Purple Binder/Healthify suggests, opening up healthcare data alongside other urban development data does more than just allow for more complete analyses of the social determinants of health. It also spurs innovation and creates more job opportunities, a plus for those looking for an additional incentive to open multiple sets of data up for easy access by the public.

The notion of cross-sector partnerships is by no means new. As cities join the open data movement, it is worth taking a second look at the types of data chosen to be opened. There remains massive potential for data integration between sectors to create comprehensive urban health profiles while also expanding industry within that city.

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