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City living: There's an app for that

Jason Slotkin | Jan. 14, 2013
Inspired by the release of ever larger and more detailed sets of municipal data, citizen-developers are writing apps to ease every aspect of city living, from preschools to parking meters.

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.


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