Municipal Data Explosion

Government leaders are seeing a nice uptake and adoption of the DC Apps for Democracy paradigm - inviting developers to grab hold of city data...
by | January 7, 2010 AT 3:00 AM

Government leaders are seeing a nice uptake and adoption of the DC Apps for Democracy paradigm - inviting developers to grab hold of city data and blast forth with new applications - whether for web, iPhone, Android, or SMS.

At a live hookup from the Consumer Electronics Show in 'Vegas on January 7, for example, London Mayor Boris Johnson announced the launch of London's "data store" website where (it is promised) developers will find hundreds of data sets . There's a lot of top shelf thinking going on about digital strategy for the City of London - and quite a kitty set aside for development: London's Channel 4 is promising roughly the equivalent of $320,000 to spur things on.

Let's hope London's site is truly data. Here in the US, we have some nascent sites, like San Francisco and Chicago . But it seems as if a lot of data is still locked up in PDFs rather than shared as XML. Everything is under one roof, true, but data in PDFs is not really mashable except with a lot of blood, sweat and tears, which is hardly the idea.

Do I see NIEM in municipal and state governments' futures? With the announcement of Code for America - hoping to do for Gov 2.0 and cities what Teach for America did for public schools - now technical assistance looks like it will be quickly available. Certainly it will be a great day when we have some agreed upon naming conventions city-to-city so we can compare rates, distributions, patterns around the country on things like health and safety, death and taxes.

As for New York, late last fall Mayor Mike Bloomberg announced the launch of "NYC BigApps Competiton." New York dangled data and a $20,000 purse - including a $5,000 first prize for the best applications. By the December 6 deadline, 85 applications were all in, so for $20,000, NYC got 85 new potential apps. That's a pretty good haul.

The contest proceeds, now, with nine judges - and the voting public. Judges include web denizens Esther Dyson, Fred Wilson, and Jason Calacanis, among others. You can see all 85 apps and vote here. And, you can essentially vote twice by influencing the judges, too. Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures (an early Twitter backer) invites you to weigh in on his choice, for example, via blog comments. You can do that here.

For your convenience, has culled its favorite 14 here. Among the top vote getters so far are:

Walkshed NYC -a walkability guide based on personal preferences.

Bookzee - a location based library book search

NYCWay - an aggregator of 30 apps

...and 82 more!

My favorite? The New York Post ran a feature on NYC Broken Meters, and it ran away with the hearts of every true New Yorker. N YC Broken Meters lets you find, discover and share broken parking meters - pretty much free curbside parking for as long as you can get away with it. With the advent of parking kiosks, the air came out of the tire on finding meters with just those 12 minutes left you needed to run in and use the Starbucks facility or grab a quart of milk at the bodega. NYC Broken Meters puts the fun back in and systematizes guerilla parking. Way to go.

Of course, it will spur the city to repair or replace the busted gear quickly, so the shelf-life of this app is not long. But the principle is vintage New York and the application well-wrought.

All this mash-up stuff is powerful when the government organization makes its data available. But not all governments are so accommodating. Often there's a tough slog ahead for pioneers who want to make service gaps transparent, but data doesn't sit nicely all in one location. In my next post, I'll detail some of these high value initiatives

Zachary Tumin | Harvard Kennedy School of Government |