Using Data to Help Local Communities

Issue Date: 
July 11, 2016

The University has been working with city and county officials for nearly two years to create a public information website called the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center, which is managed by Pitt’s University Center for Social and Urban Research (UCSUR) and available at

The data center’s mission is to provide easily accessible information that private individuals—as well as municipalities, nonprofit organizations, and other entities—can use to help improve communities. The center, which is working to build a community of dedicated users, also announces educational programs and other events on its public website—for example, a training session sponsored by the Carnegie Library recently on increasing one’s data literacy.

The project was born in 2015 when Pitt, the City of Pittsburgh, and Allegheny County received a $1.8 million grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation to establish the Regional Data Center, as well as other city and county initiatives. The Heinz Endowments has provided a similar amount of support, and Pitt has been a key partner, housing the Regional Data Center, providing additional staff support, and covering various project expenses.

The Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center provides open data, which means the information is made permanently available, and can be used and redistributed by anyone essentially without restrictions on accessibility, sharing, and re-use. Data is also provided in electronic, machine-readable, non-proprietary file formats. While the open data portal currently contains data from the city, county, and University of Pittsburgh, additional publishers, including the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, will be sharing data through the center this summer. 

The website currently lists 125 data sets under 16 categories, including Public Safety and Justice, Arts and Culture, Housing and Properties, Transportation, Energy, and Environment. Among the most popular data sets are the Pittsburgh Police Incident Blotter, which details a crime’s location, nature, and other key information. Allegheny County Property Assessments is another popular set as residents use it to learn about property values and land sales.

Robert Gradeck is a Pitt researcher at UCSUR who manages the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center. 

“What’s important for us is to try to support the work that is happening in this community,” Gradeck says. “And we need to make sure that, if data are a part of that work, people and organizations have what they need.” 

“We’ve had conversations with organizations about topics like the environment, environmental justice, community development, safety. We want to provide actual data, not just anecdotal information,” he says, adding that prior to the project beginning in 2015, researchers from universities, social services agencies, and other entities had to go to each individual source for the data they were seeking. Many times there were questions of whether the information could be released or shared—and to whom. 

Joanne Foerster, the data manager for Allegheny County, says centralizing the region’s data “has been great for the county” because it helps county government serve its residents much more efficiently.  

The center also works closely with Pitt’s School of Social Work, the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, the School of Information Sciences, and other departments that incorporate this kind of data usage into their curricula. 

If community members are looking for data that is not yet available, Gradeck says they can submit requests for consideration via the website. 

Laura Meixell is the analytics and strategy manager for the City of Pittsburgh and the city’s liaison with Pitt on the data center project. “The idea going forward,” she says, “is to make the data center extensive and inclusive so that we can host data from many municipalities or from any organization with data they want to share.”