311

Politicians are more powerful when they control public data

Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, has a fantastic article in Wired about 311 in New York City (What a Hundred Million Calls to 311 Reveal About New York). Jason Kottke references the post and shares a point his friend makes that I’ve never really thought about:

Not discussed in the article is an assertion by my pal David that exclusive access to 311 data gives incumbent politicians — like, say, Michael Bloomberg — a distinct advantage when it comes to getting reelected. For instance, when campaigning on a neighborhood level, the incumbent can look at the 311 data for each neighborhood and tailor their message appropriately, e.g. promising to help combat noise in a neighborhood with lots of noise complaints or fix the streets in a neighborhood with lots of calls about potholes.

Whether it’s getting elected or discovering new businesses opportunities, open data levels the playing field.

When data is closed to only those who have access to it, incumbents have a leg up on their competition. They can cater to constituents who complain the most and disregard areas that aren’t familiar with the service or less likely to air their grievances (and most likely not vote).

Even worse, these politicians have insider information on business opportunities that can be realized with this type of data. That’s a pretty good perk for campaign contributors, right?

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to open government data. Thoughts on other insider opportunities when it comes to closed data?

Fresh wrap: sf.govfresh

San Francisco CIO Chris Vein speaks at sf.govfresh, Sept. 1, 2010

Public servants, developers and entrepreneurs gathered together to discuss and learn about the civic value of open data and how the City of San Francisco and private citizens are leveraging this opportunity at sf.govfresh, Sept. 1, at Adobe Systems’ San Francisco offices. Speakers included San Francisco Chief Information Officer Chris Vein, Mom Maps Founder & CEO Jill Seman, San Francisco Department of Technology Director of Innovation Jay Nath, Stamen Partner Michal Migurski, Routesy Founder Steven Peterson and SF Environment Internet Communications Coordinator Lawrence Grodeska.

Watch the entire playback here. Presentation videos are also posted below.

Be sure to read Adriel Hampton’s review at OpenSF or see the #sfgf hashtag for the Twitter discussion around the event.

Special thanks to Adobe for hosting and sponsoring the event. This was GovFresh’s first event, and we couldn’t have asked for a better partner and supporter. I firmly believe fostering true community through events such as sf.govfresh is where industry needs to invest more of its outreach budget.

Video presentations

Chris Vein, CIO, San Francisco (Part 1):

Chris Vein, CIO, San Francisco (Part 2):

Jay Nath, Director of Innovation, San Francisco:

Steven Peterson, Routesy:

Lawrence Grodeska, SF Environment:

Michal Migurski, Stamen Design + Crimespotting:

Jill Seman, Mom Maps (Part 1):

Jill Seman, Mom Maps (Part 2):

Open Q&A with Chris Vein, CIO, San Francisco:

Presentations

Here’s a few of the presentations slides.

Open311 API‘ (Jay Nath, Director of Innovation, San Francisco):

EcoFinder Open Data, Open Source, Open Collaboration (Lawrence Grodeska, SF Environment):

YourGOV iPhone app gets the 311, helps citizens report non-emergency issues

YourGov is a free 311 iPhone app from Cartegraph that helps citizens easily forward their observations and concerns to local governments. YourGOV users can submit issues — such as such as potholes, fallen trees, vandalism, and street light outages — complete with location, unique details, and photos. Once submitted, YourGOV will automatically deliver requests to the appropriate participating government agency.

Down YourGOV at iTunes or learn more from Cartegraph.

Screenshots:

YourGov for iPhoneYourGov YourGov YourGov

Gov 2.0 Radio: Engaging app developers with government data

Episode

Engaging app developers with government data: A discussion with Mark Headd, an app developer and former govie, about civic apps. Headd explains Open311 and accessing government services and lowering costs using Twitter, and gives ideas on how to engage developers around government civic apps contests.

Listen

[audio:http://www.blogtalkradio.com/gov20/2010/06/14/government-20-radio.mp3]

A ‘glass half full’ view of government app contests

An increasing number of people are starting to suggest that the concept of the “app contest” (where governments challenge developers to build civic applications) is getting a bit long in the tooth.

There have been lots of musings lately about the payoff for governments that hold such contests and the long term viability of individual entries developed for these contests. Even Washington DC – the birthplace of the current government app contest craze – seems the be moving beyond the framework it has employed not once, but twice to engage local developers:

“I don’t think we’re going to be running any more Apps for Democracy competitions quite in that way,” says Bryan Sivak, who became the district’s chief technology officer in 2009. Sivak calls Apps for Democracy a “great idea” for getting citizen software developers involved with government, but he also hints that the applications spun up by these contests tend to be more “cool” than useful to the average city resident.

App contests abound

This view is starting to crystallize against the backdrop of an ever greater number of app contests being held. At the recent Gov 2.0 Expo in Washington DC, Peter Corbett of iStrategy Labs (who helped launch the first government app contest in DC) gave a presentation that listed several dozen governments around the globe that had recently completed an app contest or were scheduled to soon start one.

And the biggest app contest to date – being sponsored by the State of California – is slated to begin soon. (Two fringe technology companies that you’ve probably never heard of – Google and Microsoft – are set to partner with the Golden State for this 800 pound gorilla of government app contests.)

So if app contests are being used in more and more places, and the size and scope of these contests keeps growing, what’s with all the hand wringing of late?

Lessons learned from app contests

My take on app contests is not an unbiased one. I’ve been a competitor in three different app contests (the original Apps for Democracy, the original Apps for America, and the NYC Big Apps competition) and was recognized for my work in them. Outside of contests, I’ve build applications using open government data and APIs for the cities of Toronto and San Francisco, and for the New York State Senate.

Clearly I am a supporter of the concept of the government app contest.

Having said that, though, I do think that those taking a more skeptical view of app contests are asking some important questions. The government app contest has come a long way since Vivek Kundra was in the driver’s seat in the DC technology office. It’s time to start asking how app contests can be improved.

But before we move on to that discussion, it is worth noting the lessons that have been learned over the last two years or so from government app contests.

First, governments and citizens benefit when high value, high quality data sets are released by governments that are in machine readable formats, easily consumed by third party applications. Believe it or not, there is still debate in many places on this point. App contests prove the theory that publishing open government data provides tangible benefits.

Second, app contests prove that it is possible to engage and excite both developers and high level elected officials about open government data. The cause of open government can’t be anything but well served when these two groups are excited about it, and appealing to both successfully in equal measure is usually very challenging.

Third, and maybe most importantly, government app contests provide sort of a “petri dish” for government officials to see how government data might be used. They let governments solicit ideas from the private sector about the different ways that open data can be used in a manner that is low risk and low cost. Some of the proposed uses of government data that emerge from these contests – whether its tweeting a recorded message to your Congressman, or using an IM client to browse campaign finance data – might never be considered by governments but for them running an app contest.

These lessons aside, there are those who contend that the existence of app contest entries that have languished (or even been abandoned altogether) after a contest is over suggests that an app contest didn’t work well (or as well as it should have). I don’t think this is necessarily the case.

Look at it this way; once a government has decided to publish open data sets and enable the development of one single app by an outside developer, the marginal cost of the next app (from the perspective of government) is essentially zero.

Once a data set has been put into a machine readable format and staged for download so that it can be used by a developer or third party, what is the cost of the next download? Or the next 50, or 100? Essentially nothing.

The road to tech startup profitability and success is a long and hard one, and it’s littered with the hollowed out husks of ideas (some very bad, some very good) that for one reason or another just don’t make it.

Should we be overly concerned that the dynamic of government app contest entries is essentially the same as it is for any other sort of technology startup project? Personally, I don’t think so.

Making app contests better

I do however, think there are some things that government app contests organizers can do a better job on.

Most notably, government engagement with app developers over the long-term has proved to be somewhat challenging. Gunnar Hellekson of Red Hat has observed the same phenomenon:

“..I would think that one of the desired outcomes [of an app contest] was an ongoing community of developers that are producing and maintaining applications like this — whether it’s for love, money, or fame. It would be a shame to see hard work like this die on the vine because we’ve lost the carrot of a cash prize.”

I don’t think this is an issue with developers necessarily – I know there is still lots of excitement around the data sets that have served as the foundation for app contents that are now over. I think the issue is that governments do not always have a plan for post-contest developer engagement.

Once the prizes are given out, and the award ceremony is over, there are no plans or strategies in place to keep developers engaged over the long haul. I do not believe this is an issue of money – not every developer is looking for a cash prize, and there are some good examples of government agencies (MassDOT and BART among them) who do a pretty good job of keeping developers engaged without contests.

I also think that a greater emphasis could be placed in app contests on developing reusable components (as opposed to user-facing solutions) that can be released as open source software and used by anyone to consume data or interact with a government API. I’m talking specifically about things like open source libraries for interacting with the Open311 API – tools and libraries specifically designed to make it easier to use open government data.

The easier it is to use government data and APIs the more people will do it, and the more development of reusable components as a by product of app contest, the less angst there will be about projects that don’t remain viable long-term. If one of the requirements of entry is the use (or reuse) of common components, even contest entries that fizzle out down the road will have made a tangible contribution to the open data effort.

I think with a few simple changes, app contests can continue to be used as an effective tool by governments to encourage the development of cutting edge applications powered by “democratized” government data.

Building an Open311 application

TweetMy311Earlier this year, I had an idea to build a Twitter application that would allow a citizen to start a 311 service request with their city.

At the time, there was no way to build such an application as no municipality had yet adopted a 311 API that would support it (although the District of Columbia did have a 311 API in place, it did not – at the time – support the type of application I envisioned).

That changed recently, when San Francisco announced the deployment of their Open311 API. I quickly requested an API key and began trying to turn my idea into reality.

My idea resulted in an application that I soft launched last week. TweetMy311 is now live and can be used in the City/County of San Francisco to report 311 service requests. The project website has a detailed description of how it works, but its very close to my original idea.

More good news on the Open311 front came recently when it was announced that San Francisco and the District of Columbia had come to agreement on a shared Open311 standard. This means that apps built to work with the San Francisco 311 API will also work with the 311 API in Washington DC. I’m working on enabling TweetMy311 for Washington DC now, and hope to have this service live there in a few weeks.

Ultimately, I hope people use my application, that they like it, and that it makes it easier to report an issue to their municipality. I did, however, have some other motives in developing this application that I think are equally important.

Are you experienced?

Since 311 APIs are rare, and (right now) applications that use 311 APIs are also rare, I think there is value in being able to capture the experience of developing an Open311 application from scratch. This information can provide tremendous value to the governments that deploy 311 APIs (what works, what doesn’t, what can be improved, etc.), and for developers thinking about building an Open311 application.

I hope to use TweetMy311 to provide feedback to governments that deploy 311 APIs (and to those thinking about deploying one) so that they can get a sense of how the experience works from a developer that has used one. At the end of the day the ease of use of an API, the quality of documentation, the ability to test applications in a meaningful way and a number of other factors will determine how many developers decide to take the step and become a “civic coder” by building an Open311 application.

Getting to Open

For me, the use of open source technologies in TweetMy311 was important. This project provided a great opportunities to learn more about a technology that I have become fascinated with of late – CouchDB. TweetMy311 is a NoSQL application that uses CouchDB at its core. It runs on Ubuntu Linux with Apache and was built with the PHP scripting language (I guess that makes it the CLAP stack – CouchDB, Linux, Apache, PHP)

Building with open source technologies was important because I hope to be able to share the code I have developed with interested governments that want to learn how an Open311 application is put together. I also believe it’s important because I think the Open311 initiative can be a great mechanism for encouraging the use of open source technologies.

Leading up to this project, I developed a small PHP library for interacting with the San Francisco Open311 API. I make use of this library in TweetMy311 and any other developer that wants to use it in their project is free to do so. I plan on branching this library soon so that it can work with the new version of the Open311 standard.

Give it a twhirl

So if you live in San Francisco and you want to give TweetMy311 a twhirl, check out the description on the project website. I’d appreciate any feedback – positive or negative – because ultimately I think it will make the project better.

I had a great experience developing TweetMy311, and I learned a lot. I’m looking forward to sharing my experience with interested governments and other developers.

Gov 2.0 guide to 311 and Open311

311 History and Purpose

311 is an abbreviated dialing designation set up for use by municipal governments in both the U.S. and Canada. Dialing 311 in communities where it is implemented will typically direct a caller to a call center where an operator will provide information in response to a question, or open a service ticket in response to report of an issue. The difference between 311 and other abbreviated dialing designations (like 911) can be summed up by a promotional slogan for the service used in the City of Los Angeles:

“Burning building? Call 911. Burning question? Call 311.”

311 is operated in most large cities in the U.S. and several smaller jurisdictions as well. 311 is also a designated dialing code in Canada, and has been implemented in a number of cities in that country as well. A primary justification for 311 operations it to reduce the volume of non-emergency calls to 911, helping ensure that 911 operators are not burdened with calls that are not of an emergency nature. The first municipality to implement 311 was the City of Baltimore, Maryland (October, 1996). The largest 311 operation is that of New York City, which handles an average of 43,000 calls per day, and provides translation services in 170 different languages. On June 20, 2007, the NYC 311 service received its 50 millionth call.

311 on the Web

A key function of 311 services is to provide easy access to general information from municipal government. A March 2010 report on the City of Philadelphia’s 311 operation by the Pew Charitable Trust’s Philadelphia Research Initiative found that the overwhelming majority of callers to the service were looking for basic information:

“On average in 2009, seven in ten callers to Phillly311 were looking for basic or general information. On average, 19 percent needed to be transferred to another department or line, a rate that Philly311 likes to keep low. Another 9 percent were asking for a service, requiring an agent to submit a formal request to another city department.”

Because the web is an ideal medium for providing standard information in response to general information requests, most 311 operations include a web component with lists of frequently asked questions and information frequently requested by callers. This web presence for 311 helps offload callers from call center operators and provide options for more web savvy and connected citizens. Several 311 operations (including NYC and San Francisco) have worked to incorporate Twitter and other social media tools into their services.

The Rise of the 311 API

The first 311 API was deployed by the District of Columbia, which deployed the first version of its API in May of 2009 to coincide with its “Apps for Democracy: Community Edition” development contest to encourage the development of applications that use the API. The winner of the Apps for Democracy contest was a combination iPhone / Facebook application called SocialDC. DC is currently working with leaders of the Open311 initiative and officials in other cities like San Francisco to standardize the next version of its 311 API on the Open311 specification. In early 2010, the City/County of San Francisco became the second city to deploy a public API for interacting with its 311 system.

The Open311 Initiative

The Open311 initiative is an effort to create a uniform specification for 311 APIs. The goal is create a standard specification for a 311 API that would be deployed in multiple cities, allowing application developers to build applications that would work with any municipal API that conforms to the standard. The API deployed by San Francisco conforms to the Open311 standard, although the standard itself is likely to change as more municipalities and developers become involved in the Open311 initiative. The District of Columbia is working with the Open311 initiative and others to standardize its existing API to the Open311 specification. Other cities like Edmonton and Boston are set to deploy Open311 APIs in the near future.

311 and Open311 Video

More 311 and Open311 links

Kundra, SF officials promote Open311 API

Here’s video from yesterday’s Open311 press conference in San Francisco, including Vivek Kundra, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, SF CIO Chris Vein and O’Reilly Media’s Tim O’Reilly.

Kundra’s Open311 comments from the White House blog:

This is a great approach that ties together efforts in San Francisco, Boston, the District of Columbia, Portland, and Los Angeles to open more services to citizens, and to use data to drive progress in people’s lives. Too often, people grumble that their complaints about government – be it city, county, state, or federal – get swallowed by the bureaucracy. Open 311 is an answer to that problem, placing the role of service evaluator and service dispatcher in the power of citizens’ hands. Through this approach, new web applications can mash publicly available, real-time data from the cities to allow people to track the status of repairs or improvements, while also allowing them to make new requests for services. For instance, I can use the same application to report a broken parking meter when I’m home in the District of Columbia or traveling to cities like Portland, Los Angeles, Boston, or San Francisco. This is the perfect example of how government is simplifying access to citizen services. Open 311 is an innovation that will improve people’s lives and make better use of taxpayer dollars.

Video:

Get the 311 with SeeClickFix

SeeClickFix lets citizens report public works issues such as potholes, graffiti, and wayward trash directly from their iPhones, the SeeClickFix Website or other sites using its embeddable widget. Citizens can create watch lists to follow what’s being reported in a particular area, comment and vote up or down other issue reports and get ‘Civic Points’ for their participation. Governments can use the service as a 311 work order management system and media outlets can integrate the reporting widget and map into their Websites for enhanced reader interaction.

The service is free to use for reporting and monitoring issues. Upgrade versions include SeeClickFix Pro, available for $38 a month, SeeClickFix Plus, a mobile version that lets users customize the application with logo and theming, and SeeClickFix Connect that includes CRM integration.

Houston, Philadelphia, Tuscon, New Haven, City of Bainbridge Island and City of Manor are some of the municipalities using SeeClickFix. Participating news outlets include the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Miami Herald, Boston.com and Philadelphia Inquirer.

SeeClickFix demo:


Founder and CEO Ben Berkowitz’s Gov 2.0 Expo demo:

Citizens out in force with CitySourced

CitySourced is a free iPhone application that lets citizens immediately report civic woes directly to their local government. Users take a photo, select report type, add comments and send. The incident is then directed to the appropriate department. You can download CitySourced here.

San Jose, CA, is the first city to adopt the program. Interested cities can sign up here.

From CitySourced:

CitySourced provides a free, simple, and intuitive tool empowering citizens to identify civil issues (potholes, graffiti, trash, snow removal, etc.) and report them to city hall for quick resolution; an opportunity for government to use technology to save money and improve accountability to those they govern; and a positive, collaborative platform for real action.

Founder and chief architect Jason Kiesel demos at TechCrunch50: