Martin O’Malley: Houston Leads the Way with its Urban Data Platform


MARTIN O’MALLEY - Metrolab Senior FellowToday’s mayors understand that getting things done and making progress requires a “common platform” — a map that allows citizens, city employees, and the mayor see whether what we are doing together is working or not.

I recently had the privilege of visiting Houston and Rice University for the launch of their new Urban Data Platform. This is one powerful City-University partnership that works.

The Urban Data Platform, or UDP, provides an invaluable resource for both academic researchers and city administrators.  It is a terrific example of the new tools and solutions that cities and universities — working together — can create.

Houston’s Urban Data Platform pulls together different silos of information and makes them all land on one map.  It is a common view of what is actually happening in the city. It is a visual map from a wide range of different departments, agencies, and federal sources — with cyber-secure, cleaned, and vetted data. The Urban Data Platform gives policy makers and public administrators the tools they need to deliver better results. To know what is working and what is not. And it includes software tools like Arc GIS, Stata, and R as well as training tools for users.

Here are three examples of UDP’s power.

First, researchers and city administrators have now been able to better understand the built environment in Houston — a dynamic that is always changing. By using satellite photos and categorizing land cover types, researchers can provide a spatio-temporal picture (a picture of changes, over time, in a particular place) of how development and land use is changing Houston. Houston is the first major City to have such a detailed map and will be making their model open to the entire Southeast United States.

Second, by using disparate city, county and school districts data sets, researchers at Rice are now aggregating data to measure citizen access to parks across Houston.  This allows the regional governments to consider how to improve park access to all of its people — something that can now be accomplished by considering how overlapping services and maintenance needs can lead to reduced costs.

Third, the UDP is now just beginning to improve public health. Combining spatial data on air quality and EMS data is leading to a better picture of the causes, times and locations most likely to trigger an asthma attack. This data is now being used as a public health tool — alerting school nurses and parents on high risk days.  This is possible, only now, because all of the data is HIPAA-compliant, proving that sensitive big-data can be leveraged for individual good.

These are just a few of the ways aggregating and curating data through the Houston Urban Data Platform is leading to new knowledge and better decision making tools for government officials.

Effective government in the Information Age requires a radical commitment to openness and transparency. As more people use and contribute to the data sets, the possibilities for progress will only increase. The Houston Urban Data Platform is showing us the future — a future where common platforms and smarter cities can improve the health and well-being of every citizen.