OCTO Testimony of Dr. Jessica Sanders
Performance Oversight Hearing for the Office of the Chief Technology Officer
Committee on Government Operations
January 16th, 2020
Good morning Chairman Todd, Committee members and staff. My name is Dr. Jessica Sanders and I am the Director of Science and Policy at Casey Trees. Thank you for the opportunity to testify in front of you today. Casey Trees is a D.C. based nonprofit with the mission to restore, enhance and protect the tree canopy of Washington, D.C. To do this, we plant new trees, inventory existing trees, conduct an annual survival study to monitor tree growth and use datasets to educate the public on trees. All of this informs our efforts in supporting the District 40 percent tree canopy goal.
You may be asking yourselves, why would an organization that cares so much about trees feel so strongly about OCTO. Simply put, the data provided through OCTO has been invaluable not only in tracking our progress towards our tree canopy goal, but also in reaching equity in trees, nature, green development and environmental goals.
At Casey Trees other municipalities and organizations ask for help quite frequently on how to structure their data and how to coordinate public access. I always refer anyone to OCTO’s Open Data DC as it is an exceptional platform that serves as a model for the country. It is easy to use and contains everything from Census data to historic Special Tree permitting information. The Open Data platform has been a huge help in monitoring the District’s growing tree canopy and identifying where the canopy could be at risk and where the potential for new growth lies. While the website is very user friendly and serves as a model there are several improvements that could be made. If you are unfamiliar with a given dataset, understanding the data can sometimes be difficult. In some datasets, the field names are vague, making it hard to interpret the data. Data is only as useful as a person’s ability to understand it. Therefore, we recommend embedding in the metadata in a document that defines the fields and a point of contact for each dataset for users who have questions. It would also be helpful to have a list of agencies who use different datasets. By providing this information, we can make Open Data D.C. more accessible to all users, not just those with spatial analysis expertise or the time to do extensive research.
Having easily understandable data is important, but equally as important is making sure that the data is up to date. OCTO does a good job updating D.C.’s data. However, sometimes, while the data is up to date, the fields are not. We would like OCTO to work with DDOT to update this data specifically. In the Special Tree Permit dataset, two fields have this problem. The first is the “Under55TreeCount” field. The field name refers to the former minimum circumference of a Special tree and lists the number of trees on the property that are not considered Special. But it is hard to know if the number of trees listed are all trees under 55 inches in circumference, as the name would suggest, or the number of trees that are not Special or Heritage trees on the property. The 2016 amendment to the Urban Forest Preservation Act changed the minimum circumference of Special trees from 55 inches to 44 inches. This significantly increased the number of trees that fell under the Special Tree designation. We recommend changing the name of this field to “NonHeritageNonSpecialTreeCount”. This new title explains exactly what is in the field and can transcend future legislative changes.
The second field in the Special Tree Permit dataset that needs updating is the “Zoning” field. This field contains the zone that the permitted tree resides in. However, the zone designations in this field are from both the 1958 and 2016 Zoning Regulations. While we understand that these differences exist because some of the data was inputted before 2016, several of the previous zoning designation still exist, but with new definitions. We recommend updating all Zoning Code designations to be in line with the 2016 Zoning Regulations. This easy update will provide consistency throughout the dataset and clarity for the data user. We also recommend changing the field name to “2016 Zoning” or “ZR16 Zone Designation”. This will indicate which zone definitions the field is using. Understanding the Zoning Code is difficult and forcing someone to translate zoning designations only increases the barriers for data use. Making these changes will help the average person and ANC officials better understand and use this information.
OCTO has done a wonderful job at creating a platform that is easy to use and contains up to date information on a plethora of datasets. Unfortunately, with the quantity of data, sometimes small updates are left unnoticed. We are glad to have been able to provide our input, look forward to future data and collaboration and are happy to answer any questions.