City living: there's an app for that

Parking, crime and transit are just some of the issues that citizen-developers are addressing with apps powered by municipal data.

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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.

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.

In the absence of pervasive online data, Crouch and Galloway mostly have to lobby agencies for the information they needed -- some of which exists only on government computers -- often with mixed results. Sometimes they're accommodated; other times, ignored.

Developers like Crouch and Galloway have piqued the interests of a few city officials. Recently, Tulsa city council member G.T. Bynum and Tulsa CIO Tom Golliver met with developers to discuss a more open data policy. (Due to an unrelated incident, Golliver is currently on paid administrative leave.) The group even drafted a resolution -- similar to Portland's -- to present to the city council, which if approved, would create an open data policy for Tulsa.

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