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April 30, 2015

UCSUR initiatives designed to make data access easier

A pair of University Center for Social and Urban Research (UCSUR) initiatives aims to make it easier for students, researchers and other users to access the wealth of public and community data so they can spend less time finding information and more time making use of it.

UCSUR’s Robert Gradeck and Liz Monk outlined the southwestern Pennsylvania community profiles and regional data center initiatives in an April 21 presentation to the University Senate community relations committee.

The community profiles initiative (, currently in beta form, groups data in 11 areas: arts and culture; civic vitality and governance; demographics; economics; education; environment; health; housing and properties; human services; public safety, and transportation.

The information can be viewed at multiple geographic levels: by state, county, municipality, neighborhood, census tract, block group, zip code or council district, for example.

Gradeck said the community profiles site will be helpful for users who need quick facts or figures, and particularly those who lack experience in working with information or spreadsheets. He said the site will help students, especially those conducting research for the first time, find information on communities quickly so they can spend their time using data rather than on trying to find data.

UCSUR is training students, faculty and staff, as well as external users in libraries and nonprofit organizations, in using the site.

“We want to encourage people to adopt this broadly,” he said.

A users conference is set for June 5, Gradeck said, adding that input is being accepted on which indicators are important to users and what information is available.

“We want to make sure we’re not just throwing data up willy-nilly. We want to make sure it’s meaningful,” he said.

UCSUR also is creating a regional data center, which Gradeck described as “a regional infrastructure for data.” Just as bridges are infrastructure, “It’s important to think of data as part of the infrastructure and data as an asset,” he said.

The project is an outgrowth of UCSUR’s Pittsburgh Neighborhood and Community Information System (PNCIS), which aggregates data important to community development efforts. UCSUR increasingly is receiving requests for raw data, Gradeck said, explaining that it’s been deemed best to work with the producers of the data to make the information available rather than for UCSUR itself to be the data publisher. UCSUR will aid in automating publication of critical data, he said.

UCSUR will work with Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh as its initial partners, and other public data producers are being encouraged to join in, Gradeck said. “We’re going to do a lot of workshops and a lot of training,” he said.

Users will be able to skim through a list of publishers of data when searching the data center. For instance, a user searching on “crime” can view, chart, map or download the city police incident blotter, Gradeck demonstrated with a few clicks. In addition, individuals can build applications and tools using the data through an application programming interface. “We’re excited about the potential,” he said.

He noted that while other cities including Chicago and Philadelphia post open data, the local initiative will be different because the focus will be on the end-user. “We’re going to engage with users … we’re going to organize monthly data user groups so people can come together and learn from each other,” he said.

User groups will be organized around the data they use: property data users or health data users will be able to come together to share information and to detail how they use the data, Gradeck said.

The regional data center project will go live once legal agreements are in place and the city passes enabling legislation, Gradeck said, estimating that the project is expected to be ready to launch in about a month.

—Kimberly K. Barlow