As the wind howled and blustered on Wednesday, Kyla Browne studied a black-painted bench in Bushwick’s Maria Hernandez Park like she was trying to discern all its secrets. She and a dozen other volunteers had fanned out across the park with clipboards, charting the locations of benches, bathrooms and pieces of playground equipment.

Browne, an environmental studies major at Queens College, and a team from local data advocacy group BetaNYC were cataloging the park’s features as part of Open Data Week, their annual event in partnership with the New York City Office of Technology and Innovation. In person and online, officials and open data advocates give talks and presentations on how to use city data to advocate for important causes and hold elected officials accountable.

“It seems like it’s a standard metal and wood combination,” Browne said as she marked one bench’s location with a green Sharpie on a printed satellite map of the park. “But another important thing to get down is how many people could sit on it.”

She puzzled over whether to mark the bench as a two- or three-seater. “Should we try it?” quipped another volunteer. They sat down side-by-side on the bench just a few inches apart, laughing at the strangeness of their task.

“No, this is a two-person one,” Browne giggled, adding a note to her clipboard.

Volunteers show papers they use to mark down park benches and other features on March 15, 2023.

BetaNYC Executive Director Noel Hidalgo explained that the park-mapping excursion was an attempt to fill in details missing from the city’s own publicly available data, which lists parks’ locations and athletic facilities — but misses key features like benches and wheelchair ramps. Datasets that do include that information, meanwhile, are often not available to the public. It’s important to know the assets of each city park, especially as they get redesigned, Hidalgo said.

“Many parks were being renovated and were actually losing park benches,” Hidalgo said. “This campaign is to document where those benches are, to really demonstrate the lack of public seating in New York City.”

To do so, Browne and the other fellows divided the park in half and walked it from end to end, taking note of each bench, streetlamp, sprinkler and any other points of interest. They used landmarks to estimate each point’s location on their satellite map printouts, then wrote details about each feature on a corresponding form.

Kyla Browne (right) and another volunteer test the capacity of a park bench on March 15, 2023.

Later, the fellows would upload the benches and bathrooms to OpenStreetMap, a free public map filled in by volunteers. They learned how to use the tool through BetaNYC’s fellowship program, which trains CUNY students in data collection and analysis. BetaNYC’s Jazzy Smith, who manages the fellowship program, said the technology can be used for other civic projects, like mapping hostile architecture or the curb cuts used by New Yorkers in wheelchairs.

“Anyone can contribute to it, and you can reflect your reality,” Smith said.

Across the park, Queens College computer science student Prachi Purkaystha and BetaNYC’s Dimitri Mimy were cataloging the park’s splash pad features, including a series of arc-shaped sprinklers painted in rainbow colors. Purkaystha said it’s been instructive to get so intimately acquainted with publicly available data.

“I’m like, ‘Wow, it’s really useful,’” she said.

Browne, the environmental studies student, said the mapping excursions have also helped her explore neighborhoods where she hadn’t spent much time before, like Bushwick and Williamsburg.

Nicholas He, Kyla Browne and Jazzy Smith catalog the benches and light posts in Maria Hernandez Park on March 15, 2023.

“Mapping it and being able to walk on foot around it, I feel like I've learned a lot,” she added.

The city has a full slate of Open Data Week events on Thursday and Friday, including sessions on school lunch and police department data. The festival culminates in Saturday’s NYC School of Data 2023, a full day of classes, demos and panels all about publicly available city data and how to use it.