Monday, 25 April 2011

The Digital Life | Apps find real-life uses for piles of public data | The Courier-Journal |

Civic data files — listing the location of every police call, for example — aren't the kind of thing that the average citizen would find thrilling.

But hand them over to a software developer, and the results can be surprisingly handy.

In Washington, D.C., for example, the Stumble Safely app uses crime data to plot the statistically safest route home from a bar. In New York, BestParking draws on parking regulations data to show whether your parking spot is legal, how long you can stay there — and how much it will cost.

These apps were brought out by freelance developers thanks to piles of data that government agencies made public.

It's part of a movement in good-government circles known as government 2.0, pioneered in D.C. by Vivek Kundra, who currently serves as the federal chief information officer. In the interest of greater transparency, government 2.0 advocates say that whenever possible, nonsensitive civic data should be made public in formats that developers can use.

“It's not just what kind of data but how they make it available,” said Gabriela Schneider of the Sunlight Foundation, an organization that advocates for transparency. “Open, nonproprietary formats … will enable more people to build apps that make that data more useful to Americans in their daily lives.”

In 2008, while he was D.C.'s chief technology officer, Kundra launched a competition called Apps for Democracy that offered a $10,000 award to the best application to make use of the city's public data resources. Although the contest cost $50,000 to run, it generated 47 apps—which would have cost an estimated $2.3 million had the city commissioned each one.

Since then, New York City and the federal government have held similar competitions with their own troves of public data, leading to apps like New York's, which tells you if the restaurant you just checked into on Foursquare is about to be closed for health code violations.

It's not just big cities that are opening their data. Baltimore (whose population, 637,000, is smaller than Jefferson County's) offers vast amounts of data through its OpenBaltimore program –— from crime stats to parking tickets to property maps.

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Since municipal governments already collect all of this information, making it public isn't particularly expensive, according to Tom Lee, director of Sunlight Labs. “It's been paid for by tax dollars, and if the public has use for it, they should be able to get their hands on it.”

Apps that use civic data aren't limited to smart phones, either. Applications can be Web-based. Others work via text message. Mark Headd, a government app developer at Voxeo Labs, built an application that lets New York residents text a number to find the nearest library.

Louisville Metro Government's website offers a handful of datasets that developers could use, including recent crime stats and restaurant inspections. The city has its own apps that draw on this data, like one for looking up restaurant inspection letter grades.

According to Chris Poynter, spokesman for Mayor Greg Fischer, more is on the way. During last year's election campaign, Fischer proposed LouieStat, a stockpile of data similar to OpenBaltimore and to New York City's Data Mine. “We hope to bite it off in pieces … so we have a really good database that people can tap into,” Poynter said.

Poynter also mentioned a new text-message-based emergency information system slated to roll out shortly, as well as an app that would let you snap a picture of a problem — a pothole, say — and send it with location data directly to the Metro 311 system through your phone. If the 311 app functions like those in other cities, it should allow anyone to see a map of reports and track whether the problems have been fixed.

According to Schneider of the Sunlight Foundation, increasing the availability of public data like this “helps create more trust in government.” At the very least, it would allow us to do something about our potholes besides cursing loudly when we hit them.

Written by
Matt Frassica
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