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Audit finds inaccurate data on city portal

Wednesday, July 26, 2023 by Jo Clifton

Unreliable data is a widespread problem for the city of Austin, according to an audit performed by the Office of the City Auditor. Francis Reilly, the auditor in charge, explained some of the city’s data problems to the City Council Audit & Finance Committee on Tuesday.

Most recent audits “have found issues involving the city’s data, many of which remain unresolved,” according to the audit. In addition, it found that “data on the city’s Open Data Portal are not user friendly or reliable.”

Additionally, the city lacks a strategy for displaying its data or ensuring its accuracy. Auditors recommended that the city centralize oversight of its Open Data Portal and also create “a citywide strategy for sharing and presenting our data.”

As Reilly noted, more than half of the office’s audits from 2017 through 2021 “identified some type of data reliability issue. These audits covered 20 departments and various citywide issues. The most common data reliability issues were: data either missing or not collected; dirty data, which includes poor data quality, misspellings, extra characters, duplicates, or outdated data; lack of a process for collecting or evaluating data; and departments not using data to improve processes.”

The audit found that six of 11 assets sampled from the Open Data Portal did not match departmental records. “The discrepancies between data on the public portal and in the departments’ source data affected as few as two records to hundreds of thousands of records,” according to the audit.

For example, auditors found that real-time traffic incident reports did not include all the data. They also found that a map of city swimming pools – designed to tell the public what pools are open and when – was inaccurate. Reports from the Austin Animal Center on outcomes did not account for two pets. Reports from Austin 311 on publicly available information showed some missing service requests. In addition, the audit found Austin lagging behind other cities in offering training to the public in use of the city’s online data.

Auditors noted that neither members of the community nor decision-makers using the data could be sure that the information is accurate and complete.

The audit recommended that the city manager establish centralized oversight over the open data with an inventory of all of the assets that are part of the portal and establish processes to ensure that the data is correct and timely. Interim City Manager Jesús Garza assigned the task to the Communications and Technology Management Department.

Kerrica Laake, the city’s acting chief information officer, told the committee that the portal was launched in 2013 as a part of Austin’s open government directive. She added that the department had done a variety of upgrades to the portal, and in June, it began training sessions on best practices for employees of various departments.

Laake became the acting chief information officer this spring, when Chris Stewart moved into an executive adviser role with the city. When he got the new assignment in April, he told Statescoop that he had intended to retire in the near future but would continue to work for the city for about six months to assist with a variety of transitions.

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes stressed that it is important for the public to access the data and asked about the role of the Office of Performance Management. Kim Olivares, the city’s deputy chief financial officer, told Fuentes that office had been merged with the Budget Division of Financial Services. Budget Officer Kerri Lang now oversees that group of employees, Olivares said.

Council Member Alison Alter, who chairs the committee, said she was happy to hear that the data portal had been assigned to one department. However, Assistant City Manager Rodney Gonzales told the committee that management would be discussing which department should ultimately have oversight of the Open Data Portal. He said they would discuss it at a meeting on Friday.

Alter told him the committee would expect to receive a memo outlining management’s plans for making sure that the Open Data Portal receives the attention it needs to correct the deficiencies detailed in the audit.

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