City living: There's an app for that

Parking, crime and transit are just some of the issues that citizen-developers are addressing with apps powered by municipal data.

Edward Yau found himself in a common predicament. It was time to choose a school for his 4-year-old son, but finding a top-quality preschool is a notoriously herculean task for any parent in the city of New York.

There is myriad information available online -- ranging from state testing scores to public school report cards -- but "the information is really scattered," Yau says. He spent hours combing through data and placing it into spreadsheets. With around 2,000 private and public preschools to sift through, it was an exhausting process.

As a software developer, Yau saw opportunity in his frustration -- so he built Sage, a free app that amalgamates school stats from across the Web into a single, easily searchable form. The app allows parents to search by address, intersection, ZIP code or school name, and results display each school's basic information, state exam results, NYC progress report grades and admissions tips. "I built it because I needed it," says Yau. "There was no alternative that had up-to-date school data."

City life has always had its challenges -- schools, transportation, neighborhood conditions -- but now across the country citizen-developers like Yau are coming up with mobile-friendly solutions by tapping into a wealth of disparate municipal data, from restaurant health violations to noise complaints.

Where the average citizen might be overwhelmed sifting through massive digital warehouses and spreadsheets of minute municipal data, these coders are finding inspiration for such useful city apps as these:

  • Wondering when the next bus comes? In Portland, Ore., PDX Bus, a free, open-source iPhone app, delivers bus and train arrival times by tapping transit data, including GPSes built into city buses.
  • Need a parking space but not a parking ticket? In Baltimore, Spot Agent parses citation records meter by meter to show users where an expired meter is most likely to yield a ticket and, conversely, where enforcement officers tend to tread lightly.
  • Committed to greening up your neighborhood? In New York, 596 Acres, created by a Brooklyn-based non-profit, gives would-be urban gardeners contact information for agencies that will grant them access to vacant lots. It also keeps tracks of projects started through the app, allowing like-minded green-thumbed Brooklynites to connect on a garden.

The PDX Bus app uses city data from Portland, Ore., to show estimated bus arrival times at specific intersections. New York and Boston are among many other cities where citizens have developed apps for public transportation.

Data deluge

This rapid emergence of municipal apps is being fueled by the release of a deluge of municipal data.

Over the past decade, much information that was once paper-based has made its way online to various government websites and databases. That movement drastically accelerated in 2008 with the Obama administration's Open Government Initiative, which led to the digital release of vast amounts of federal data, with many sets now available in a publicly accessible database, Data.gov.

Multiple municipalities followed suit, often following the Open Data Policy, and have now significantly upped their online data stores, releasing hundreds of data sets free of charge -- a first for some agencies.

Those efforts have been praised by open government advocates, particularly policy wonks and journalists who have long sought out public data for everything from legislative campaigns to behind-the-scenes exposs. "Those municipalities that have made strides in making data sets available are moving in the right direction, and that's worth applauding," says Kenneth Bunting, director of The National Freedom of Information Coalition, a nonpartisan alliance of organizations dedicated to information freedom.

That said, it's the newcomers -- app developers -- who have shown these municipalities another reason to make the content of their filing cabinets available online. In crafting their data policies, many city legislators and mayors have cited the economic and sector-building potential in opening their data. And at least in terms of app development, those that have made data available say they're seeing results.

For example, in New York City, some 250 city-specific apps have already been developed based on information released over the past three years, says Andrew Nicklin, director of research and development at New York's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. And the city recently committed to releasing thousands more data sets by 2018.

And three years ago, the City of Portland, Ore., codified its open government commitment through legislation, releasing more than 100 unique data sets of city information from crime data to new business licenses. Cities like Philadelphia and Raleigh, N.C., have followed suit, with mayors issuing executive orders or proposing laws creating open data polices.

Spot Agent aids Baltimore drivers by tapping citation records to determine which meters are most likely to attract the attention of an enforcement officer.

In Chicago, a group of citizen activists recently opened CivicLab, which defines itself as "a nonprofit dedicated to building, distributing and encouraging the use of new tools for civic engagement and government accountability." One of the group's first projects is the Tax Increment Finance (TIF) Report, which aims to apply visualization tools to government data to shed light on how municipal taxes are collected and used.

While citizen-developed apps are hardly the only reason cities are committing to releasing data, they are a valuable side effect, one that municipal directors generally welcome.

"In the ideal universe, the city would have all the money and resources to solve all the problems the city has," says New York's Nicklin. Second best is an environment where "people can solve problems whether they're in government or not," he says.

In many cases, app developers are able to put data in a context that makes sense to ordinary citizens. 596 Acres developers, for example, found that the city's vacant lot data wasn't always practical. One city-record vacant "lot," for example, was only one square foot large -- too small for even the most modest community garden.

Empowering citizens, engaging developers

In broadest terms, giving the population access to municipal data doesn't just generate apps, it changes the relationship between citizen and city. "It's greater than applications," said Jay Nath, chief innovation officer for the City of San Francisco. "For me, it's almost a new type of civic engagement."

That's the ethos that guides Code for America, which serves as a developer version of the Peace Corps for federal, state and local government. The nonprofit teams volunteer developers, known as fellows, with municipalities looking to create new apps and services with their data.

One signature Code for America app is Boston's Adopt a Hydrant program, which solved a persistent and dangerous city problem -- hydrants plowed in after snowstorms -- by pairing concerned citizens with individual hydrants to maintain. Honolulu uses the same model to deputize citizens to make sure the tsunami warning sirens near their homes have working batteries.

In total, Code for America has partnered with 11 American cities, developing and brainstorming apps similar to Boston's. "You can demonstrate to the large bureaucracy, 'This is what you get when you open up data,'" said Mark Headd, government affairs director for the organization.

596 Acres aids would-be urban farmers by tapping New York municipal data to display empty lots on a map and via street view. An info box links to the city agency that oversees the plot.

Some enterprising municipal governments actively attract developers through hackathons and app-design contests.

At most hackathons, developers work with city data to create new apps in marathon coding sessions. San Francisco, Philadelphia and Baltimore are among the many cities that have sponsored or co-sponsored hackathons, and last year New York's IT department held a hackathon to re-design its official city website. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had lunch with the winners, went on to sponsor a sustainability hackathon, Reinvent Green, this past summer.

In addition, cities such as New York, Portland and Chicago have sponsored app design contests, where winners receive cash prizes and citations from elected officials.

Bringing Tulsa up to speed

For all the enthusiasm that some cities are bringing to the data table, others are less gung ho -- to the dismay of their code-writing citizens. Until recently, would-be developers in Tulsa, Okla., have found their city slow to embrace the app movement.

Even though official city data is not yet online, there seems to be some movement in that direction, thanks in large part to local developers Matt Galloway and Luke Crouch. They have worked on various apps for Tulsa for years -- one program allows users to browse pictures of Tulsa mid-century. In addition, they've long worked on developing an area transit app.

In the absence of pervasive online data, Crouch and Galloway mostly have to lobby agencies for the information they needed -- some of which exists only on government computers -- often with mixed results. Sometimes they're accommodated; other times, ignored.

Developers like Crouch and Galloway have piqued the interests of a few city officials. Recently, Tulsa city council member G.T. Bynum and Tulsa CIO Tom Golliver met with developers to discuss a more open data policy. (Due to an unrelated incident, Golliver is currently on paid administrative leave.) The group even drafted a resolution -- similar to Portland's -- to present to the city council, which if approved, would create an open data policy for Tulsa.

Crouch says a draft of the resolution should be presented to the council early next year. Soon after that, Crouch and Galloway hope, Tulsa will have the kind of access to crime, transit and other datasets that techies in San Francisco enjoy. "I think we're demonstrating the potential. It's a really neat movement to be involved in," says Galloway.

Jason Slotkin's work has appeared on Nytimes.com, ArteryNYC, and Willamette Week. He currently splits his time between New York and Washington.

Read more about mobile/wireless in Computerworld's Mobile/Wireless Topic Center.

Tags Government ITMobile/WirelessNetworkingwirelesssagemobilemobile apps

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