Major city governments across North America are looking for ways to share civic data — which normally resides behind secure firewalls — with private developers who can leverage it to serve city residents via web and mobile apps. Cities can spend on average between $20,000 and $50,000 — even as much as $100,000 — to cover the costs of opening data, but that’s a small price to pay when you consider how much is needed to develop a custom application that might not be nearly as useful.
Here are a few examples of initiatives that are striving to make city governments more efficient and transparent through open data.
1. Apps4Ottawa – Ottawa, Quebec
Careful to adhere to security and privacy regulations for their open data program, the City of Ottawa started sharing data in several areas: geo-spatial (roadways, parks, runways, rivers, and ward boundaries); recreation facilities; event planning; civic elections data; and transit, including schedules. Other data the city is pursuing includes tree inventory, collections schedules for garbage, recycling and compost, and bike and foot paths.
Ottawa aligned their first open data contest, Apps4Ottawa, with the school year (September 2010 to January 2011 ) to involve colleges and universities as well as residents and local industry. Categories for the contest included “Having Fun in Ottawa,” “Getting Around,” “Green Environment/Sustainability,” “Community Building,” and “Economic Development.” The winner is scheduled to be announced later this evening.
Guy Michaud, chief information officer for the City of Ottawa, said their open data efforts have already spurred economic development and is meant to be good for local entrepreneurs. The city receives no revenue through the apps, and the developers can sell what they create. In turn, Ottawa residents get improved services from applications that are created, with better access to city data and more user-friendly formats and platforms.
2. CivicApps.org – Portland, Oregon
After tracking Vivek Kundra’s efforts at the federal level with data.gov, Portland, Oregon launched CivicApps.org, a project initiated out of the mayor’s office to bring a more localized approach to the open data movement. Skip Newberry, economic policy advisor to the mayor, say that the project’s main objective is to improve connections and the flow of information between local government and its constituents, as well as between city bureaus. To call attention to the release of public data, they also launched an app design contest, highlighting the tech talent in Portland’s software community.
According to Rick Nixon, program manager for the Bureau of Technology’s Open Data Initiative for the city of Portland, CivicApps.org took a more regional approach to cover the multiple layers of local government: County, Metro, TriMet, and the City of Portland, all of which collect and maintain various kinds of public data. Data sets released include regional crime, transit, infrastructure (i.e. public works), and economic development programs. Additional projects, such as the PDX API, have been launched in order to make the raw data from CivicApps more useful to developers.
In addition to developer-specific apps, a number of transit related apps — bike, train, bus, mixed modes — were also developed. A very popular and established transit app, PDXBus, was re-released as open source under the rules of the CivicApps contest. Other popular apps helped provide residents greater awareness of their surroundings such as where to find heritage trees, where to find urban edibles, and where to locate each other during disaster relief efforts.
3. CityWide Data Warehouse – Washington, DC
For years, the District of Columbia provided public access to city operational data via the Internet. In keeping with the mayor’s promise to be transparent, the program CityWide Data Warehouse was launched, and provides citizens with access to over 450 datasets from multiple agencies. The first two datasets released were service requests from the mayor’s call center, including trash pickup, pot hole repair, street light repair, snow removal, parking meter issues and crime data.
According to David Stirgel, program manager for Citywide Data Warehouse, the project looks for data that be of interest to the widest possible audience and which will remain reusable over time. Some of the applications that have come out of the program include Track DC, which tracks the performance of individual District agencies, and summary reports that provide public access to city operational data. Some of the applications built by companies and individuals using the data include Crime Reports and Every Block.
In 2008, the District Mayor’s office, the District of Columbia’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer, and digital agency iStrategyLabs launched Apps for Democracy, an open code app development contest tapping into District data that cost $50,000 and generated 47 apps. The contest was repeated in 2009. Over 200 ideas and applications were submitted, and the winner was an iPhone and Facebook app called Social DC 311. It could be used to submit service requests, such as reporting potholes and trash problems. An honorable mention was given to FixMyCityDC. Unfortunately, neither app is maintained today.
4. NYC Data Mine – New York, NY
NYC BigApps 2.0 is part of an initiative to improve the accessibility, transparency, and accountability of city government. According to Brandon Kessler, CEO of ChallengePost, the company and technology powering the NYC BigApps 2.0 Software Challenge, Mayor Bloomberg challenged software developers to use city data from the NYC.gov Data Mine to create apps to improve NYC, offering a $20,000 in cash awards to the winners.
The second annual challenge closed its call for submissions at the end of January 2011 and opened the vote to the public. Voting ends on March 9. Requirements included that the software applications be original and solely owned by the entrants, that they use at least one of the datasets from the NYC.gov Data Mine, and be free to the public throughout the competition and for at least one year after the challenge. The panel of judges reads like a “who’s who” of New York tech luminaries, and includes Esther Dyson of EDVenture, Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures, Jack Dorsey of Square and Twitter, and Kara Swisher of All Things Digital. One of the first year’s winning apps was WayFinder, an augmented reality Android app which allows users to point their phone in a direction and see which subways and Path trains are in front of them.
5. DataSF – San Francisco, California
Like other city governments, San Francisco’s goal for their DataSF program was to improve transparency and community engagement as well as accountability. Ron Vinson, director of media for the city’s Department of Technology also stated potential for innovation in how residents interact with government and their community. With an emphasis on adhering to privacy and security policies, the city can stimulate the creation of useful civic tools at no cost to the government.
Before launching, they reached out to Washington, DC to identify the most popular datasets, and learned that 20% of the datasets represented over 80% of the downloads. With this information, they went out first with crime, 311, and GIS data. They also allowed the public to request data through a submissions mechanism on the website where others could vote on their suggestions. This input is now required reading for the city administrator thanks to an executive directive and open data legislation.
Since launching in August 2009, DataSF has accumulated over 60 applications in its showcase. According to Vinson, the city stays engaged with their tech community by participating in local unconferences and meetups.
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