Ten Years After Katrina: New Orleans’ Recovery, and What Data Had to Do with it

By Denice Ross, Presidential Innovation Fellow

As a New Orleanian, it’s hard to believe how far we’ve come in the 10 years since Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. In the days of the aftermath, we had a tremendous effort ahead of us, and government at all levels did too: Understanding the extent of the flooding, conducting damage assessments, providing temporary housing for displaced residents, rebuilding the levee system, distributing rebuilding dollars, and issuing building and demolition permits. One of the great lessons we learned through the experience was the power of data to illuminate our path to recovery.

Ten years ago, the concept of “open data” had not yet taken hold within the government.

Back then, accessing even basic government data involved a formal public-records request and often came with restrictive data-sharing agreements. As a result, in post-Katrina New Orleans, the public didn’t have easy access to many government data sets tracking recovery activities. The public could view some government records, one at a time, but because the data were not available in their entirety — in a structured, machine-readable, “open” format — citizens couldn’t download, analyze, or innovate on these data sets.

This was a major problem for neighborhood associations, nonprofits, businesses, real-estate developers, and others in need of data to plan their next steps and the collective recovery of New Orleans. As anyone who has visited New Orleans knows, we don’t accept adversity sitting down. So technologists started writing programs to extract data from government websites. Neighborhood residents and legions of volunteers organized field data-collection efforts to document the condition of storm-damaged buildings.

A sampling of neighborhood data collection efforts after Katrina: Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement & Development, Harmony Community Development, Lakeview Civic Improvement Association (photo credits: Alex Pandel), Mid-City Neighborhood Organization (photo credit: Greg Hymel), WhoData.org at University of New Orleans

In fact, people recognized the power of data so much that bootlegged copies of several government datasets eventually made the rounds by e-mail and were widely used by neighborhoods and organizations across the city. What kind of data? Things we often take for granted, like building permits, population estimates, and the parcel layer (in other words, information about the shapes of land that people own).

While many things were uncertain after Katrina, the value of data was clear.

In 2009, nearly four years after Hurricane Katrina, then-U.S. Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra recognized the public value of open government data, and launched data.gov.

This became the first-ever catalog of open data for the U.S. Government. And as people began to use the data, public expectations about access to government data started to change. Seeing the impact, the Office of Management and Budget issued the Open Government Directive, which instructed U.S. agencies to open up their data to increase accountability, promote informed public participation, and create economic opportunity.

A year later, the City of New Orleans began their own open-data efforts. City tech staff released the city’s parcel layer dataset (one of the datasets that was being passed around via email in bootleg copies) to a file-sharing web site and emailed a few dozen citizens who had requested the data. The public response was so overwhelmingly positive that, in August 2011, New Orleans expanded public access to open data by formally launching data.nola.gov as the city’s central hub for data.

But New Orleans didn’t stop there.

Today, New Orleans’ community of data users — including civil servants, journalists, neighborhood leaders, community organizers, and civic techies — is more committed than ever, having seen the great things that happen when government data is opened. Working on a number of projects — in collaboration with a variety of groups including nonprofits, businesses and state, local and federal governments, great things are happening. Just take a look:

Three open government tools for: 1) tracking status of blighted properties, 2) receiving personalized notifications of proposed land use changes, and 3) crowdsourcing property conditions through a photo survey

This is what happens when you connect a city’s data with the innovation of its residents:

  • Today, the City of New Orleans released attributes and photos of more than 10,000 properties on the FEMA-funded demolition list after Katrina, making a significant contribution to the narrative of the city’s architectural heritage. This wasn’t possible before the recent accessibility of government cloud-storage solutions and open-data infrastructure.
  • Yesterday, the Smithsonian Institution, in partnership with Esri, released an interactive Katrina story map built on Federal data sets like the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the 2000 and 2010 Census, and private data sets, such as households receiving mail. Many of these data sets were compiled by the Data Center, an independent research organization serving southeast Louisiana. Organizations that translate data into easy-to-understand information enable citizens to better understand their world and plan for their individual and collective futures.
  • The city’s data on blighted properties fueled Code for America’s BlightStatus web app, which helped New Orleans reduce urban blight through demolition, remediation, or compliance of 13,000 building units in the city.
  • Another local data set on building permits powered NoticeMe, a personalized notification tool that emails citizens when paperwork has been filed to change a land use designation within their designated communities, better enabling the public to participate in public hearings.
  • New Orleans answered the White House Innovation for Disaster Response and Recovery Initiative’s call to action for local data stewards by releasing disaster preparedness open data, such as the locations of schools, nursing homes, hospitals, grocery and hardware stores, pharmacies, neighborhood boundaries and evacuation pickup points. This data supports greater accuracy in communications and tools used by media outlets, innovators, and first responders.
  • Inspired by the White House Climate Data Initiative, New Orleans is creating a crowdsourcing photo-survey tool for rapid assessment of property conditions. This will help ensure that the burden of data collection post-disaster will never again fall squarely on citizens who are already struggling to rebuild their homes and neighborhoods.
  • As part of the White House Police Data Initiative, New Orleans is committed to opening data about police-citizen interactions with the aim of building community trust. Police and city tech staff recently collaborated with a group of young coders to build software prototypes on a preview of police data sets in an easily accessible form.

I believe history will reflect on this 10-year anniversary as a tipping point, when the open data ecosystem in New Orleans finally reached escape velocity — breaking free from the gravitational pull of old, closed ways of running government and onto an unstoppable path of transparency, civic participation and collaboration.