Rats! Open data tells New York City residents where the vermin are - and aren’t

The Big Apple’s Rat Information Portal is an early example of a government using open data in a creative way

Heat map of locations in New York City found to have ratsImage credit: NYC Department of Health
If you don't like rats, avoid the areas in red

As I written before, many governments these days, all over the world, are implementing open data initiatives to make data that they collect freely available in machine readable formats. I'm always interested in hearing about such initiatives and, in particular, about interesting open data sets that are being made available to the public. This week I found one that should be of interest to anyone living on the Big Apple: the New York City Health Department's Rat Information Portal.

The portal, actually, isn't a new initiative. It was launched way back in 2008, but it's new to me; I recently saw it mentioned by the Sunlight Foundation. Even though it's old news to some, I thought it might be news to others of you, as well, who are interested in this sort of thing (yes, I'm talking to you, David Letterman).

The point of the portal is to provide educational information for everybody (residents, landlords, businesses, etc.) about what attracts rats, signs of rat infestations, how to report rats to city health inspectors and so on. It also provides raw data on where the rats are, based on inspections done by the health department, as well as by their rat indexing initiative, which is an an effort to more comprehensively “index” the rat population by inspecting all properties in certain areas (currently, only Manhattan and the Bronx).

The most interesting part of the portal is the interactive heat map of rat inspection data. Using this interactive map, you can look up the inspection history, going back to 2009, for any address in the five boroughs. It will tell you the dates and results of any inspections, as well of any follow up compliance checks. 

As for raw data, the site provides city-wide rat reports, aggregated to the zip code level, going back to 2006. Also, rat indexing data is used to create (non-interactive) heat maps of communities in the Bronx and Manhattan that have been inspected.

Being 5 years old, the portal doesn't really live up to what we've come to expect from current open data websites; it doesn't (so far as I can tell) make all of the raw inspection and indexing data available via API or in some standard digital format. Here's hoping they do soon enough, so some bright developer can create, say, a mobile app to let you look up rat info on the fly so you can avoid places where the little buggers hang out.

I'm sure, if nothing else, Dave Letterman would probably appreciate it.

UPDATE 1/24/14: As several readers pointed out, newer and more open rat data (such as rodent complaint calls made to 311) are available through New York City's OpenData website. Go there, search on rats and behold the wealth of rodent information you can access. There the raw data can be filtered and downloaded in lots of standard formats. Have fun!

Read more of Phil Johnson's #Tech blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Phil on Twitter at @itwphiljohnson. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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