Month: February 2011

Zonability founder shares thoughts on apps, open data, advice to civic developers


Zonability is a zoning information Web application for ‘property owners, renters, sellers, buyers, remodelers, investors, and neighborhood watchdog groups.’ It was an Apps for Californians winner and is now competing in the NYC BigApps 2.0 contest. Founder Leigh Budlong discusses her work, challenges with open data, thoughts on Gov 2.0 and shares lessons-learned advice to other civic developers.

How did you get the idea for Zonability?

Zonability is an idea that I carried in the back of my head for years, but it took the 2008 financial crisis to make it come to life. As a former commercial real estate appraiser, I was always tracking down zoning information. While I knew I couldn’t establish an opinion of value without it, I dreaded doing it because it was time consuming. It meant waiting for city planners to return a call or picking through online PDFs that are hundreds (sometimes thousands) of pages long. The bottom line, it was one of those tasks that always left me with the thought of “there has to be a better way.”

The collapse of the real estate market and subsequent financial meltdown put almost all of my customers out of business. By the end of 2009, I knew I had to re-invent my 6-year old company if I wanted to keep it going.

What have been your challenges developing Zonability?

We are working on multiple fronts so there are several major challenges that range from access to information, developing a sound business model and resource allocation. Zonability is a bootstrapped project. We know first hand what it takes to be a “skinny startup” and have reached out to others in this sector to ask how they are doing it – it is a great community of software developers!

Regarding the technology piece, designing and building the database has been most perplexing given the disparity of data sets and the sheer volume of data found in a typical zoning ordinance.

Incorporating GIS (geographical information system) data became a big part of our product once we learned how to successfully embed the zoning ordinance data. The fusion of two produced our interactive map – I was hooked! The drawback has been the time required to go to individual municipalities to inquire about a GIS shapefiles (this is the format for GIS). Some places have the information online, others require a signed statement outlining the purpose of asking for the data while others simply say “no” because we are not a non-profit. Convincing cities to provide these files has been an ongoing challenge.

What are your thoughts on Gov 2.0?

In my view, we are at the beginning stages of an evolving trend and this is due to several reasons: the popularity of smart phones, increased adoption of self service informational platforms, and stripped government budgets. We are also at the forefront of people collectively solving problems. That in itself may lead to other interesting turns of events. Adoption rates will be fast once the benefits become clear and the process for creating an open data platform get easier.

I’m currently reading The Change Function by Pip Coburn who talks extensively about why some technology is adopted while others are not. It comes down to ease of use. I see the next chapter for Gov 2.0 focusing on how to consume this now open data with a cleaned up and conforming structure such as APIs.

Once that milestone is reached, I anticipate the real adoption to start. One way to track the success of Gov 2.0 will be to monitor the growth of civic software jobs. “Government as a platform” has tremendous potential to be a successful example of public/private partnership. Using Zonability as an example, we started with an idea, grew it to something tangible and are now starting to pay people with different backgrounds and talents in the hope of building a business. That is where I think Gov 2.0 is going … to new job creation and entrepreneurship.

What advice do you have for aspiring civic software developers?

Well, it is a bit like construction – it takes twice as long and costs twice as much. Really though, it is good to recognize early that despite having great plans, things may take longer and not go the way you thought they would. This seems to be especially true for civic software given the “new-ness” of the concept.

These are my tips:

  1. Don’t get down or give up when you hear “no.”
  2. Don’t think you are the only one hearing “no” so reach out to other developers.
  3. Explain clearly what data you need (and why) and be prepared to make your request in writing.
  4. Be an ambassador for Gov 2.0 and help explain it to people since it is so new. It is important to recognize the distinction between data and information. In fact, that is a critical point. The government has data – tons of it – but it is and will remain worthless without ‘doing something’ with it to make it useful.
  5. Encourage other civic software developers – this is a brand new field and there is plenty of room for all of those interested to enter. There is no successful business model to point to (at least not quite yet).
  6. Timing is everything. Be prepared, think ahead and have fun because this is an undefined space where you can make a difference and be apart of a fast-changing cottage industry.

From a personal perspective, Zonability is stretching my boundaries on so many levels. It is like being in a lab where you learn technology, government protocol and product development while coping with the risk of failure. It requires a leap of faith to devote all of your time and personal savings to a new venture, but it is incredibly rewarding – even before seeing a single dollar of the revenue we aspire to create in the future.

To learn more, contact Leigh or follow Zonability on Twitter.

Zonability video overview:

Gov 2.0 guide to open source custom map design using TileMill


This week, Development Seed announced the release of a full-featured map design studio that enables web developers to rapidly generate gorgeous custom maps. Based upon open source technologies and funded in part by a generous grant from The Knight Foundation, TileMill dramatically increases the accessibility of custom map generation for enterprise users, including the government. By decreasing the sunk costs required to generate custom maps and at the same time increasing the performance of these solutions, TileMill also paves the way for the next generation of geospatial products capable of meeting the open data imperative.

Why is TileMill Disruptive?

To understand the value TileMill provides, one must understand the existing custom mapping landscape. Even in the Web 2.0 world, those who desire custom maps and geospatial web services (not just a generic Google Maps embed) often need to be able to justify exponential increases in costs and/or schedule for their projects.

TileMill is a game changer because it dramatically lowers the barrier to custom map generation and makes it possible for almost anyone (from a policy analyst to a web developer to a GIS analyst) to quickly generate professional looking, custom maps. It does so by:

  1. Leveraging an innovative programming environment that requires no more than the minimal programming abilities expected for web development (ex. CSS-like language);
  2. Supporting a community that is committed to making validated data sets more accessible for its users.
TileMill Custom Map Design Studio

TileMill Custom Map Design Studio

Rather than serving as “a general-purpose cartography tool, TileMill focuses on streamlining and simplifying making beautiful maps.” This means TileMill is not planning to go head-to-head with proprietary GIS systems (ex. ESRI ArcGIS or AutoDesk GIS Design Server). Instead TileMill targets a broad set of audience needs not well met (or likely to be met) by existing products. It does so by helping the average web developer overcome their own challenges: a lack of core skills (software, training, and experience) and time required to generate complex custom maps from traditional geospatial information system (GIS) solutions. From this perspective, TileMill clearly augments and expands both the geospatial and web development marketplaces.

What Makes TileMill Innovative?

In the closed and open source geospatial community, there are many solutions and standards available to developers. What differentiates TileMill is not so much that it is free and that it is based upon a number of open source standards (both of which are true). Nor is it just the fact that a broad audiences of traditional and nontraditional GIS users find the world of custom map making to be easy to use and accessible with TileMill. In the world of Enterprise IT, where innovation often is judged on its technical merits, it’s what is under the hood that still matters most. Thankfully, TileMill does not disappoint.

From the technical perspective, TileMill’s use of Carto, coupled with its deep integration with Mapnik, helps to set it apart in the marketplace:

  • Inspired by Cascadenik, Carto is a CSS-like map styling language based on less.js. It is custom designed to make geospatial mapping more accessible to the average web developer as well as to generate significant performance savings over comparable languages. For example, compared to Cascadenik, typical Carto stylesheets compile 4-5 times faster (usually in less than 100 milliseconds).
  • Mapnik is a OpenSource C++ toolkit for developing mapping applications and integrates with the node.js, a super fast non-blocking server side javascript platform. Thanks to Mapnik’s reference project, the TileMill editor can even highlight correct attributes and suggest corrections when values are invalid.
Open Data at the World Bank with map tiles baked using TileMill

Open Data at the World Bank with map tiles baked using TileMill

How Can TileMill Help Government Agencies Meet the Open Data Imperative?

With TileMill now fully integrated with other MapBox solutions and supporting shapefiles, GeoTIFF rasters, simple KML and GeoJSON, as data pulling from a local disk or from Amazon S3, it is clear that the MapBox solution set can meet a broad range of enterprise user needs (including those of government agencies and federal contractors). This was recently validated by a major media organization, who leverages TileMill to stylize U.S. Census data for their web site:

Beyond this example, TileMill provides limitless options for new lost-cost, high-impact solutions designed to meet the open data imperative. These include a wide range of domestic and international public policy challenges that require new mobile apps, web services, analytical tool sets, and real-time monitoring technologies. From this perspective, the future of open data looks more promising than ever with the release of TileMill.

Appendix: Guide to MapBox Tools and Services

In evaluating TileMill, it is important to consider the larger MapBox set of solutions. At present, MapBox is composed of the following tools and services (reproduced with permission from the MapBox web site):

U.S. Census data map styled with TileMill by Chicago Tribune

U.S. Census data map styled with TileMill by Chicago Tribune

  • MapBox on Apps.Gov provides federal agencies with the ability to freely use MapBox map tiles as a software-as-a-service solution.
  • MapBox.Com hosts free custom designed map tiles, detailed documentation, and open source tools to help users easily build customs maps for their websites.
  • MapBox for iPad enables Apple users to interact with their custom maps (including visualizing their KML and GeoRSS data) entirely offline.
  • Maps on a Stick provides Apple and Windows users with the ability to distribute their custom maps using only removable media – a critical asset in low bandwidth and mobile computing intensive environments.
  • MapBox Hosting offers paid premium cloud-based tile hosting for MapBox users. This ensures that organizations can quickly scale their geospatial capabilities to meet their needs.
  • TileMill is a tool for cartographers to quickly and easily design maps for the web using custom data. It is built on the powerful open-source map rendering library Mapnik, the same software OpenStreetMap and MapQuest use to make some of their maps. TileMill is not intended to be a general-purpose cartography tool but rather focuses on streamlining and simplifying making beautiful maps.
Pakistani flood relief map with MapBox

Pakistani flood relief map with MapBox

TileMill full video overview:

Raleigh, NC—the world’s first open source city

I started pondering what qualities would define an open source city a few months ago when my friend Tom Rabon mentioned it to me one day. I was curious how the city I live in, Raleigh, NC, could attract other open source companies and be the world’s hub for open source and a leader in open government. How could Raleigh be the open source capital of the world, similar to what Silicon Valley is to technology and Paris is to romance?

I think the answer can be found in both the government and the people. First, our government has to be willing to embrace the open source way of doing things. They need to be transparent in their handling of business and foster citizen participation. Citizens need to be willing to participate and contribute their time and knowledge. Both need to embrace rapid prototyping to explore new ideas and innovative solutions.

But what sets Raleigh apart from other places? What makes Raleigh ready to be an open source city over New York, San Francisco, London, Paris, Beijing? I sat down with the mayor of Raleigh, Charles Meeker, to explore what makes a city open source.

Mayor Meeker was elected in 2001 and has since grown accustomed to the open source way, primarily by learning about Red Hat and the open source development model. As an attorney, it’s no surprise that Mayor Meeker understands the benefits of collaboration and shared knowledge. Let’s find out why the City of Raleigh is ready to stake the claim as the world’s first open source city.

What one big opportunity, outside of technology, has the best chance of being solved the open source way (i.e., through collaboration, transparency, sharing, meritocracy, rapid prototyping, community, etc.)?

The use of more energy-efficient lighting is one area the City of Raleigh has focused on and where we are seeing returns. We are actively promoting and sharing our experiences with other municipalities, including testing how much electricity is being used and the quality of light being produced. Sharing this information is a big part of our experience.

The City of Raleigh has over 40 LED installations with an average savings of $200k/year on electricity costs. The payback is typically 3-5 years (considering capital costs). It’s a great option for remote parking. You can easily install a few solar panels and not have to add new lines and infrastructure. The possibility for cities around the world to adopt energy efficient lighting is a great opportunity—the City of Raleigh wants to be a part of that story and to be known as an early adopter. Spreading the word on LED lighting with the help of our partner, Cree, is important to us.

What are your thoughts on open government or gov 2.0, and what can the city of Raleigh do to have a more open and transparent government with its citizens?

First, all of our meetings are open to the public, with very few exceptions. The real challenge is to take advantage of the expertise from all of our citizens. There is a lot of great talent out there that can help solve real problems for the city.

One way is through new boards, like the new rail board we established, and how their advice and recommendations are handled by the city. Issues around storm water and utility fees have allowed us to tap into the expertise of our citizens to lead to better solutions.

Rail is an area that will be ongoing for the next 3-4 years. We have many experienced individuals out there that are willing to share their knowledge and apply what they know to help formulate future decisions on rail.

Having the public see what we’re doing and provide the right recommendation is an asset that is underutilized, but we have had success, such as when the storm water management board made recommendations on how to better manage flooding. The City Council was able to use the expertise from the board to make better policies around storm water management.

What qualities make a city open source?

Three things come to mind:

  • Willingness to share
  • Willingness to receive information
  • The right attitude to be innovative, creative, and try new things

Citizens need to be willing to adopt to the future. Open source is a strategy we are using to move forward.

Why is Raleigh primed to be the world’s first open source city?

Our citizens are ready for Raleigh to move forward and be more open source focused. The technology is successful. Raleigh is ready to be the worldwide hub for open source.

The advantage Raleigh has is around growth and jobs. We’d like to see the convention center host more open source focused conferences. We’d love to see a bunch of smaller Red Hats, start-up companies and established companies, come to the area because we embrace open source.

Partners are also a big part of the answer. The Convention Center, Visitor’s Bureau, Chamber of Commerce, and other partners need to embrace open source and highlight it as part of our economic development strategy.

How do you use the open source way in your everyday life?

In the law firm I work at, I try to provide information to younger attorneys. Sort of a sharing of the trade secrets to help them succeed faster. And quite frankly, one of the hardest things for any person in public office is to listen. I’ve found that listening is 70-80% of the job. You have to fully understand what is going on in order to make an informed decision.

FreshWrap: New Google Public Data Explorer, NYC 311 online, what Ghonim says …

What we’re paying attention to: A conversation with Drupal founder Dries Buytaert

 Dries Buytaert

Dries Buytaert Drupal and Acquia CTO and Co-founder Dries Buytaert and Acquia Vice President, WW Business Development Tim Bertrand join Gov 2.0 Radio to discuss Drupal and open source in government.



(photo by Joi)

FreshWrap: ‘Copy, paste, map,’ data isn’t enough, GAO joins Flickr …

What we’re paying attention to:

FreshWrap:, kill switch, overcoming ‘administrative vulnerabilities’ …

Fire chief discusses how new app lets community help save lives

Fire Department

Be A Hero: San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District Chief Richard Price shares the latest on a new app that links trained volunteers with heart attack victims using GPS-enabled smart phones. Chief Price tells Gov 2.0 Radio that volunteer developers from Workday are building out a software development kit for the project, while a foundation will help implement and provide support for agencies in the U.S. and around the world. Learn more and register interest in the Chain of Life 2.0 project here.


FreshWrap: Open government questions, Army’s social media personal conduct advice, more

What we’re reading:

B’more Open: Is Baltimore the new San Francisco?

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake signs executive order creating the city's first open data initiative.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake signs executive order creating the city's first open data initiative.

From open data to open source procurement policy to open311, San Francisco has led the open government way, but with the recent departures of former mayor Gavin Newsom (now California lieutenant governor) and former chief information officer Chris Vein, it looks as if Baltimore is on its way to becoming the new San Francisco.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and new Chief Information Officer Rico Singleton recently announced the city’s first open data initiative, OpenBaltimore (powered by Socrata), to “increase transparency and improve the level of trust between the people and their government.”

On the heels of this announcement, the Baltimore Sun reports Baltimore city council members have proposed drafting a panel of residents to choose candidates for empty seats, giving citizens a direct role in the city’s democratic process.

Rawlings-Blake is even starting to sound like an open government mayor:

“With OpenBaltimore, the city government will begin sharing data with the public in an unprecedented way,” said Mayor Rawlings-Blake. “Innovative and creative people will now be able to collaborate with government, and hopefully find ways to improve service delivery and save money for taxpayers.”

Video of Rawlings-Blake announcing and signing the executive order creating Baltimore’s open data initiative:

While these aren’t ground-breaking initiatives, it shows potential for a city that doesn’t normally get recognized for innovation and technology. This is a great first step.

Let’s hope B’more’s new open government motto is ‘B’more Open.’

Side note: Mayor Rawlings-Blake, if you’re reading, get Baltimore to Code for America.