Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg once called the New York Police Department “the seventh biggest army in the world”. Whether or not that stat is true, there’s no doubt the NYPD is a large and powerful organisation – and, as current mayor Bill de Blasio learned last year, it does not always take criticism well.
Enter Ben Wellington, a Brooklyn-based quantitative analyst who runs the storytelling-through-data website IQuantNY. The map above comes from a recent IQuantNY post examining New York City’s parking ticket data, which is freely available online. The red circles represent millions of dollars in erroneous parking tickets, issued by NYPD officers to vehicles that were in fact parked legally.
Before posting the analysis online, Wellington reached out to the NYPD to report his findings. A few weeks later he received the response below: a thoughtful, polite note from the NYPD acknowledging the error and listing the steps they’ve taken to correct it.
Mr Wellington’s analysis identified errors the department made in issuing parking summonses. It appears to be a misunderstanding by officers on patrol of a recent, abstruse change in the parking rules. We appreciate Mr Wellington bringing this anomaly to our attention. The department’s internal analysis found that patrol officers who are unfamiliar with the change have observed vehicles parked in front of pedestrian ramps and issued a summons in error ...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. 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.
It’s incredible to consider that one person analysing numbers on their home computer has the power to influence an organisation as large and powerful as the NYPD, something successive mayors have struggled to do.
As Wellington said: “This is what Open Data is all about. This was coming from the NYPD, not generally celebrated for its transparency, and yet it’s the most open and honest response I have received from any New York City agency to date. Imagine a city where all agencies embrace this sort of analysis, instead of deflecting and hiding from it.”
The story certainly underscores the power of open government data. It also, perhaps, illustrates why some government agencies may be reluctant to open up their data for public inspection – and why public involvement is crucial in making sure they do.