Five Things We Learned From Burlington's New Open Data Portal

Feb 21, 2014

With the launch of an “open data” web portal this week, the city of Burlington took a big step toward greater government transparency. The portal contains a wide variety of data, ranging from how much money the city spent on a softball field to how frequently the Fletcher Free Library loaned garden tools. 

The portal fits into Mayor Miro Weinberger’s dual goals of restoring accountability to city financial decisions and turning Burlington into a hub of innovative technology project.

“I’m a big believer in the power of data combined with modern analytical tools to really improve organizations,” Weinberger said. “To allow organizations to make smarter decisions, more efficient decisions. It’s a long-term goal that we’re nowhere near realizing, but this is an important step,” he said of the new open data portal.

Weinberger dates his interest in leveraging data back to his early fascination with the work of baseball statistician Bill James, whose innovative statistical analysis drove a change in the way baseball teams are managed. Oakland Athletics manager Billy Beane pioneered this method, which was outlined in the book Moneyball.

“The fact that baseball was so dramatically changed in every way by good statistics and analytical reasoning has always been very powerful to me,” Weinberger said.

The mayor  said he hopes the city’s new tool will do the same thing for Burlington.

The portal is currently in a 12 month trial period, according to Weinberger's office, with a cost to the city of $5,000. Ultimately, Weinberger said, the efficiencies gained by making the data available online (not requiring staff time to answer public records requests, for example) may save money for taxpayers.

VPR spent the day digging into some of the data. Here’s what we found out:

1. Police are expensive

Of the city's $44,673,914 General Fund expenditures in Fiscal Year 2014, $11,927,927 are dedicated to the police department. That's a big piece of the doughnut.

Burlington's Fiscal Year 14 spending by department.
Credit Source: data.burlingtonvt.gov

2. Fletcher Free Library loans more DVDs than any other category of item

With apologies to adult non-fiction (38,078), garden tools (1,200) and cassettes (45), DVDs seem to be the hottest items at Fletcher Free Library, where they were rented out a total of 52,773 times between Jan. 2013 and Nov. 2013.

Circulation numbers by category at Fletcher Free Library. Source: data.burlingtonvt.gov
Credit Matt Parrilla / VPR

3. More than half of the buildings in Burlington were built after 1949

With the build-out of the New North End, among other things, Burlington experienced massive growth in the 1950s. While the 2000s were relatively quiet years for building in the city, the 2010s already on track to surpass the previous decade.

Number of properties built in Burlington by decade. Source: data.burlingtonvt.gov
Credit Matt Parrilla / VPR

4. Burlington is noisy

Burlington's police force has done a lot of traffic policing since October 2011, but noise violations come in second place with 3,422 calls. Perhaps related: intoxication (2,640) comes third.

Police calls by incident type since October, 2011. Source: data.burlingtonvt.gov
Credit Matt Parrilla / VPR

5. Burlington International Airport has been losing passengers since 2008

In Burlington and nationally, airlines haven't seen as many passengers in recent years as they did in 2007 and 2008. But unlike the national airline industry, which has been slowly climbing since its 2009 lull, Burlington's passenger count has been declining since its 2008 peak, when 759,021 passengers boarded there. In 2012, just 623,604 passengers flew out of Burlington.

Nationwide enplanement data. Source: Bureau of Transportation Statistics
Credit Matt Parrilla / VPR
Burlington enplanement data. Source: data.burlingtonvt.gov
Credit Matt Parrilla / VPR

Correction: An earlier version of this article improperly stated that Billy Beane wrote Moneyball. The book is by Michael Lewis.

Clarification Feb. 24: Added information about trial period and cost to the city.