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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.

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.


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