New York City Council Launches New Public Dashboard

In the past year, U.S. citizenship assistance was the second most popular category of constituent casework for New York City Council Members after tax preparation help. It is the top issue for Council districts in Northern Queens, Central and Southern Brooklyn, the Western Bronx and Southeast Queens. While Spanish is the top second language spoken across the city, Chinese is the top language in districts in Northern Queens, Southern Manhattan and Southwest Brooklyn. Yiddish is the top language in the Brooklyn district that includes Borough Park, while it is Russian in two neighboring South Brooklyn Districts.

Those are some of the insights possible through a new overview of public data that the New York City Council is launching that uses maps to make district information more easily accessible to lawmakers, advocates and the broader public.

The growing data team under Council Speaker Corey Johnson has put together maps showing the district-level distribution of top 311 requests, councilmember constituent services, housing violations and new building permits and spoken languages other than English.

“At the Council, we strive for a transparent and open government as part of our mission to best serve the people of this City,” Johnson said in a statement. “I am very happy to see this dashboard up and running, since it will help New Yorkers access information about the City more easily and help Council Members make decisions that are in the best interests of their constituents.”

With this initiative, Johnson, who assumed the Speaker role at the beginning of the year, is building on the work of his predecessor Melissa Mark-Viverito. Under her leadership, the Council released a public technology plan, launched a new website as part of a Council Labs project, published the Council’s constituent services statistics to the open data portal, adopted the open-source legislative tracking platform Councilmatic and integrated online voting into the Participatory Budgeting process. The effort also joins tools from outside government such as Citygram, a Code for America project that allows for email and text notifications for updates on 311 requests or restaurant grades within neighborhood areas.

“We wanted to make sure we looked at publicly available data, but we couldn’t find this data available in a user-friendly way,” said Laura Popa, deputy Council Chief of Staff for legislation and policy. “Council Members got a training, and we got very, very good feedback, and the goal is to expand our offerings on here,” she added, noting that there have already been requests to expand on the datasets. She said she had not yet seen any similar project by a legislature in the country. “The tenant advocates would be very interested in our maps … [civic technologists] usually come to us and say guess what this could be made better.”

“The City Council’s District Dashboard will be an invaluable tool for Council Members and their constituents that will allow us to track trends, follow up on cases, and prepare for the future,” Councilman Peter Koo, chair of the Committee on Technology, said in a statement. “This site will allow people to break down government data to show how it impacts neighborhoods on a hyperlocal level.”

The 311, housing and constituent services maps draw on existing resources on the city’s open data portal, while the language map is based on census data. The city has its own 311 service request map, though its interface does not appear to have changed significantly since its launch in 2011. Popa said the staff was open to adding other ways of presenting the information that would go beyond just the top raw numbers.

“Definitely population was something we thought about, but we’re still thinking about what geography we want to base population on, because currently the census doesn’t have population at the Council District level, so we need to do some maneuvering,” said Rose Martinez, quantitative analyst on the data team.

The 311 map showcases requests made in the past few weeks, with the ability to drill down by request type, agency and date. Users can also click on an individual request to see information about its status and a street view photo image of the location. “It was interesting to know what the top 311 requests being made are, those are things that change week by change, day to day,” said Julia Fredenburg, a data visualization specialist in the Speaker’s office. The top 311 requests of the past few weeks are residential noise complaints, requests for the collection of large bulky items, illegal parking, street noise and blocked driveway complaints. Users can also filter by other inquiries such as street tree requests or rodent sightings.

Even if the maps don’t directly inform legislation, Popa said they could help Council Members have timely awareness of reported problems such as dangerous street conditions or rats, and prompt them to follow up with agencies. “This is just a really good tool to deal with neighborhood issues in an expeditious way,” she said. The constituent services map shows the top requests of the year across the city and by district. “This could be a way for Councilmembers to see … where are other districts that maybe I should talk to if I need help working on U.S. citizenship issues with my constituents,” Fredenburg said.

She said the housing violations map could help members of the public see if neighbors had made similar complaints or aid policy makers in identifying problem buildings, while the language map could help members tailor their outreach.

“The Speaker’s intent is to have a good government tool for government actors, for electeds, for policy makers to use and to make sure that what we’re doing is transparent and the public has the same tool,” Popa said.