Skip to main content
Open Data Case Examples

These cases offer two distinct opening government data initiatives. One case, which examines public access to restaurant health inspection data in New York City (NYC), traces in general terms, the development and changes due to the mix of technical and social processes over several years. The case deals primarily with the changes in information fl ows, governance relationships, and actors. The other, from Edmonton, Alberta, examines in some detail the early life of an open data initiative to increase public access to street construction project data. This case illustrates how the agency and public respond to new means of information access and use. It focuses more on the capabilities of the agency, as well as the data management practices, business value, the selection process, and the role of an external mobile app developer.

Though neither case tells the complete story, each contributes important insights into the dynamics of an information polity. In both cases, the activities that make up much of the case story involve one or more actors scanning the environment and connecting the opportunities they see to capabilities they can mobilize to exploit the opportunity. Their initiatives seek to forge more useful connections between data sources, information resources, and the public, increasing the potential for the data to be more useful both to the primary users and other stakeholders

Releasing Restaurant Instpection data in New York City, USASince the mid-1990s, NYC has been posting its restaurant inspection data online to reach a wider audience. The basic story of releasing restaurant information pre-Internet is relatively simple. Prior to 1999, a website did not exist and the results of restaurant inspections were made available to citizens by posting the paper inspection reports in a conspicuous place in each of the city’s restaurants. Figure 2 depicts the primary actors and information flows as between restaurant operators to the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), then back to the restaurant operators and from the restaurant operators to individual customers on site. Citizens and other actors (e.g., news media, transparency, and accountability groups and other government units) with an interest in restaurant inspections could request the information from the DOHMH through a Freedom of Information request or by collecting it from individual restaurants

Diagram of Restaurant Entities
Figure 2. Restaurant inspection information polity–pre-website..
Post 1999, the Internet surfaced as a technological disturbance that shifted the existing information flows and changed the number and types of actors with easy access to the restaurant information. Figure 3 (page 16) depicts the information still fl owing from inspectors to restaurant operators to citizens, but with a technical disturbance, the website. The impact of expanded access through a website was discovered shortly after the restaurant inspection data went ‘live.’ Within 24 hours, the first Web server hosting the inspection results was overwhelmed by traffic and crashed.

The NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) is responsible for inspecting the City's roughly 24,000 restaurants for compliance with the City's Health code

There appeared to be a pent up demand for easy access to the inspection results and thus a perception of the dramatic increase in the importance of this type of data. The governance relationships began to change as well. Restaurant operators demanded more frequent inspections to correct bad scores and stories appeared in city news media about the inspection website and the favorable public reaction to it.

In 2010, the DOHMH changed it governance processes, moving from ratings to letter grades, A, B, or C. The City continued to require restaurants to post the letter grade result in the front window. When the city changed to the letter grade system, the restaurant association complained publicly and created their own survey of restaurant operators to document negative impacts on business. The city countered with statistics on reduced frequency of hospitalization for Salmonella infections in the city. Both the Mayor and the City Council took part in the back and forth in attack or defense of the inspection reporting system, and the issue remains alive today.

Figure 3. Restaurant inspection information polity–postwebsite
Figure 4 describes the further expansion of information flows, new actors, and governance relationships. By 2009, we witness the explosion of Web 2.0 social networking tools that can more easily link various data sources and citizen networks. In 2009, app developer Mike Boski created NYC Restaurant Scrutinizer, which provides an up-to-date breakdown of inspection results, claiming to put roughly 19 thousand pages of essential information at users’ fi ngertips. Boski sells the app on iTunes for $1.99, but makes it free if requested. In addition, the app lets users email violation results to a friend, map locations, call the restaurant directly, and read reviews by other users. Boski provides the following disclaimer for users, “The City of New York cannot vouch for the accuracy or completeness of data provided by this website or application or for the usefulness or integrity of the website or application. This site provides applications using data that has been modifi ed for use from its original source,, the offi cial website of the City of New York” (

Figure 4. Restaurant inspection information polity–Web 2.0.
In 2012, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DOITT) released their own free application called ABCEats, also available on the iTunes site. The app lets users check inspection letter grades at restaurants near their current location or search by restaurant name or neighborhood. Information is updated daily to provide users with the latest results (

NYC Restaurant Scrutinizer app
The NYC Restaurant Scrutinizer app was released in 2009 and provides an up-to-date breakdown of New York City restaurant inspection results
Recently, another secondary resource called EveryBlock picked up the restaurant inspection data. EveryBlock is a website, newsfeed service, and mobile application that tries to connect citizens to their neighbors and neighborhood news. It is currently in 19 U.S. cities. It was originally funded by a foundation grant, but is now owned by NBC Universal (

ABC eats app
The official NYC app lets users check inspection letter grades at restaurants by current location, restaurant name, or neighborhood
Releasing Street Construction Projects Data in Edmonton, Canada.The story of opening street construction projects data began several years prior to its official launch in April 2012. In 2009, the City of Edmonton, a recognized leader in open data initiatives, made a commitment to using “technology to make municipal information more open, transparent and accessible” through the launch of an Open Data Catalogue. The Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) staff were responsible for working with the City’s major agencies—as the business owners of most of the City’s information assets—to identify data that were good candidates for inclusion in the Catalogue.

Construction map
Figure 5. City of Edmonton Street Construction Projects Static Map
The OCIO staff began looking across the city departments and discovered that the Department of Transportation (DOT) had a number of data sets that were potentially good candidates. Discussions between both departments followed and street construction information quickly emerged as a data set that could be easily integrated into the Open Data Catalogue. OCIO staff noted how street construction projects data continued to “pop up” as a promising initiative among a growing list of data sets the OCIO wanted to include in the Catalogue. The street construction projects data was initially seen as a good candidate because it was a relatively small data set, simple in structure, and easy to render in a more accessible visual form using the city’s selected data visualization platform.

The business value of making this data open was clear to DOT. The volume of projects identifi ed in their annual plan represented a very large proportion of the DOT responsibility. Edmonton enjoys a very short period of warm weather when all construction projects seem to take place, thus at any given point during this time, the number of active projects is quite large. The result of this condensed construction period is felt by residents and other stakeholders as travel delays, disruptions in availability to local businesses, noise and other environmental impacts in neighborhoods, as well as impacts on different government agency projects (e.g., public works projects not under the control of DOT including water, sewer, and other utility projects). Construction work also increases the workload at DOT due to the large volume of calls about the construction work (to DOT and other city offices).

Edmonton is known for its two seasons: Winter and Road Construction. It makes perfect sense that one of its flagship open data initiatives would involve releasing street construction projects data

The DOT already had a process in place for making their street construction projects data available to the public and had been doing so for years. In addition, the city had clear existing standards for data defi nitions and formats already in place. Prior to construction season, DOT would post a static map of the planned projects on its departmental website. In addition, the map would be distributed to various media outlets such as the Edmonton Sun, which would post the map in its newspaper.

Edmonton open data map
Figure 6. City of Edmonton Street Construction Projects Interactive Open Data Map.
Using the less interactive DOT website or information provided in the Edmonton newspapers, citizens would either click on a ward link to bring up a relatively low resolution map of the ward showing projects located by numbered dots that referenced a list of projects on the page below the map. The list contains a mix of simple project identifiers along with links to pdf fi les that contain a more detailed map and project description for some, but not all projects. The most detailed and useful information is thus three clicks down and even then not always complete. The separation of the geospatial information about the project into three separate forms (overall map, ward map, project map) makes it much less accessible and useful than a single interactive map presentation. None of the maps included much in the way of additional information about streets, terrain, or points of interest. As one could imagine, the maps and street construction projects by ward information was even less interactive in newspaper print form.

By making the street construction projects data available in the Open Data Catalogueand using the city’s data visualization platform, the city had the opportunity to improve the usability and therefore usefulness of this information compared to the static presentation shown on page 17. The OCIO staff completed the process quickly as a result of the relative simplicity of the data set combined with the robust capabilities of the application used to implement the catalog entry. A visualized entry based map on a GIS interface was created. This allowed users to access the data either through the map interface or directly in a data table, an option available on the map page

The current city website presents the construction project information using both the static and interactive maps. The interactive map allows users to click on a blue dot and bring up a description of the project at that location, a screen shot of which is shown above.

The map can be enlarged to whatever scale the user prefers and shows increasing amounts of geo-referenced information at higher resolutions. The amount of detail available in the mapping interface allows the user to locate the project site with relatively high precision. A description of the construction types is included in a table below the map. However, the current record for an individual project does not always include information about the time frame or boundaries of the work. For example, the record for a repaving project may not identify all the road surfaces involved.

While moving from static maps to interactive maps helps to provide additional context and increase usability, it also creates a sense of ‘what’s next.’ The release of the data generated increased interest in what else might be available to enhance usability. For example, the DOT staff and OCIO staff started to think about the cost and benefi t of providing additional types of data, either that they already collected or Figure 6. City of Edmonton Street Construction Projects Interactive Open Data Map.20 The Dynamics of Opening Government Data Center for Technology in Governmentwould need to begin to collect. Decisions regarding adding data elements, particularly those that are not currently collected will require new effort and may require new changes in governance. For example, the decision about which projects to conduct in a year is made as part of the city budget process in the early part of the year. Projects may be cancelled or added during the year but this is infrequent. However, deciding to provide start and end times maybe somewhat more dynamic. To date, no new technical methods or changes in business processes were needed to keep the data up to date

Edmonton construction app
The Edmonton Road Construction app uses the City of Edmonton’s Street Construction Projects open data set.
Two factors contributed to the rapid growth in certain time periods of public access to the road construction data. First, the local news media quickly took notice and published information about the site and its value to the city’s driving public. The Edmonton Sunpublished a positive article on April 4, 2012 followed shortly by a piece by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Secondly, a local application developer decided to create a mobile app for smart phones and similar devices to access the map interface. He saw the data as useful for the population and decided to make a contribution to his new home city, not as a commercial venture. He reported that creating the app was a relatively straightforward task for him, due in part to his extensive development experience and the high quality of the data set and metadata provided by the city. Particularly, he noted that the inclusion of geo tags listing longitude and latitude provided the right level of detail for the type of mobile application he wanted to construct. If this information was not available, he described a more time consuming and less accurate alternative – using third party mapping software or less precise geographic locations. He also noted that in his scan of other available government data sets, many lacked this quality of data and metadata. He explained that he would not have built the application if many of these components were not available, suggesting it would have been too time consuming and costly to him.

As a result of these promotional efforts and new tools, the use of the data set has increased substantially. From the opening of the Open Data Cataloguein April, monthly views increased to over 1200, then declined gradually to less than 250 by mid-October, when the construction season was largely over. As of October 2012 there have been just short of 11,000 views, over 300 downloads of the data, and links to the site have been embedded over 7800 times.

In choosing and implementing the street construction projects data set, the City of Edmonton was motivated by the value proposition internal to the city government and also recognized the potential value of the data and its map interface outside of city government. Some of the potential value created included avoiding costs associated with fielding phone calls from citizens or avoiding damage to the City’s reputation for inconveniencing the public with travel disruptions. The value proposition of the new data resource would be better informed and forewarned citizens, who would complain less and the elected offi cials and city professionals could enhance their reputations for supporting cutting edge services. Similarly, the OCIO staff could advance the CIO’s and City Manager’s objectives of increasing accessibility to city data sets, increasing their reputation for facilitating improved services, and building their capabilities for future achievements

Review comment
Other types of data sources such as comments by mobile users of the restaurant inspection apps can be combined with government-held data sources