It’s not (just) about apps. It’s about the open data.

In a Fast Company post earlier this week, information architect and user experience consultant Hana Schank is skeptical of whether New York City takes digital seriously. The city’s approach to digital development” focuses on plenty of sizzle, not much steak,” writes Schank. “It’s time for the city to deeply explore what New York’s citizens actually need, and the ways in which those citizens are likely to behave.”

Schank is onto an important trend, although perhaps a bit late to the party: throughout 2011, there’s been a rising tide of opinion that apps contests and hackathons should make tech citizens need. People like Clay Johnson have been suggesting that government focus on building community, not apps contests for some time.

Schank may have touched a nerve in the NYC digital tech community, given that +Dave Winer shared her piece on Twitter earlier today. As I’ve alluded to,  I’ve seen skepticism about apps contests as mechanisms for solving serious urban problems become widespread, far beyond Gotham City.

“I was discussing this just the other day. From what I know I’m drawn to @HanaSchank’s argument. But NYC not alone sadly,” tweeted Dominic Campbell, in response to my question on Twitter.

Mark Drapeau, Microsoft’s Director of Innovative Engagement, a long-time observer of Gov 2.0, agreed:

Despite Drapeau’s assertions, an emerging trend this year for government app contests in cities is a shift from “what’s possible with this dataset” to focusing on the needs of citizens.

Earlier this week, Govfresh founder Luke Fretwell shared a similarly strong opinion about this issue about civic hackathons. “Too many civic hackathons focus on developer vanity projects that don’t address real technology issues governments face,” writes Fretwell. “Government must be proactive in organizing and sharing their needs and collaborate with civic-minded developers during hackathons like Education Hack Day to get these problems addressed. Developers need to focus on projects that make a difference and provide sustainable technology solutions.”

As 2011 comes to a close, the verdict is in. Government entities of all sizes need to think carefully about app contests and sponsoring hackathons. Simply put, the next wave of government app contests need to incorporate sustainability, community, and civic value.

That’s a point that the open government community has coalesced around, as the speakers in the EPA open data webinar embedded below make clear:

A fair assessment of NYC Big Apps 3.0?

If apps contests are going to endure in any form, they will need to evolve. On that could, it look likes that Schank simply missed that NYC BigApps 3.0 asked citizens for ideas about apps they needed. They’re explicitly trying to tie ideas to development, as ChallengePost founder Brandon Kessler pointed out in a comment on her post.

Did it matter that the NYC BigApps organizers asked for ideas on what citizens need? “As someone who does this for a living, doesn’t generally work quite like that,” replied Campbell. “Need facilitated conversation 2 get 2 nub of probs. Complex problems need far more nuanced, in-depth, long-term, facilitated approaches. Apps contests are lightweight. They work for some of the quick wins and easy solutions or to start a process. but what of the ppl who really need help?”

Kessler also commented, however, on the fact that the winner of the first NYC BigApps contest is now a VC-funded startup, MyCityWay. While $5 million in funding after an apps contest isn’t a common outcome (in fact, it’s unique as far as I know) it shows what can happen when civic entrepreneurs decide to solve a problem for citizens that hasn’t been addressed in the market. In this case, MyCityWay offers a good digital city guide that’s populated with open government data. There are a number of other ways that NYC open data has been useful to citizens, not least during Irene, where social, mapping and crisis data played a role in informing the public about the hurricane.

Chicago’s open government approach to an app contest, Apps for Metro Chicago, has focused explicitly on sustainability, requiring open source code, offering technical assistance and explicitly connecting communities with software developers. 

“We’re using the Apps for Chicago to get a new kind of civic engagement and participation, which you can get involved in whether you write code or not,” said John Tolva, Chicago CTO, in our interview earlier this yera. “We’ve invited community leaders and groups to the table. The idea for a ‘Yelp for social services’ didn’t come from a technologist, for example. We’re curating ideas from non-technologists.”

Like Apps for Chicago, winners of Apps for Communities (from the FCC and Knight Foundation) are similarly open source and each are focused on problems that citizens actually have:

  • Yakb.us, (www.yakb.us) “provides bus riders with arrival times in English and Spanish when a five-digit bus stop number displayed onsite is texted to the local transit agency.”
  • Homeless SCC (http://homeless-scc.org) “connects homeless people and families with services according to their specific needs and eligibility.”
  • Txt2wrk (http://www.txt2wrk.net) “helps parolees, the homeless and other job seekers compete on a more level playing field by allowing them to apply for jobs online thorugh a text-to-speech delivery of job postings on any mobile phone.”

It’s about the open data, not the apps

In her article, Schank is bearish on New York City’s digital prospects, holding up the relative failure of Roadify to burn rubber and asserting that the widely publicized “Re-Invent NYC.gov Hackathon” held over the summer is only going to encourage more Roadify-like ideas, rather than address what people really need out of the city’s website.”

Given that I’ve reported on New York’s digital open government efforts, I followed the progress of that hackathon closely. Frankly, I’m not convinced that Schank picked up the phone and talked to any of the participants or NYC chief digital officer Rachel Sterne: the redesigns of NYC.gov I saw were search-centric and focused on what citizens were likely to need.

Unfortunately, Schank seems to have missed the larger context of how data and open government are transforming New York City. For instance, read her description of the new MTA bus pilot:

“The new pilot program allowing bus riders to text for the location of their bus offers another example of what not to do. Bus riders who text a number posted at their bus stop are rewarded with a text back from the MTA that says something like “your bus is 0.8 miles away.”

I suppose in some city, somewhere, 0.8 miles might be a meaningful designation for the distance between two points, but in Brooklyn, where the program is being piloted, it leaves riders with exactly the same knowledge about their bus’s whereabouts they would have had before texting. Is 0.8 miles very far away? Is there traffic? Why not text back the location of the bus (“Your bus is at Atlantic and Court St.”), or an estimated arrival time, both of which should be easily calculable based on the user’s location and average bus travel times?”

That’s a valid critique and Schank offers good ideas for riders. And she’s clearly right about how fractured information is over 100 websites in NYC, along with the lack of citizen-centricity that’s often on display. (We’ll see if the recommendations from the NYC.gov hackathon bear fruit.)

The thing is, if she, as user experience consultant, wanted to team up with a developer and make a better bus app, I believe that there’s a road to creating such a thing precisely because of how NYC set up its bus tracking system as a platform.

If NYC can similarly open up application programming interfaces and data for traffic violations, lunches and e-cycling, apps for school lunch calendars, speeding ticket and paint thinner disposal locations could become available to citizens. Which all goes to say, if you scratch a little deeper about some of its thinking and actions, maybe NYC gets digital a bit more than Schank’s withering critique would suggest.

As NYC.gov buckles, city government pivots to the Internet to share Hurricane #Irene resources

Tens of millions of citizens in the United States are watching as Hurricane Irene churns up the East Coast. If you’re in the path of the immense storm, today is a critical day to prepare. Visit Ready.gov for relevant resources. Unfortunately for citizens in my home state, New York City is right in the path of Hurricane Irene. As many New Yorkers look for information online, however, we’re watching NYC.gov is buckling under demand. For part of Friday morning, NYC.gov would not resolve. The outage is providing a real-time experiment in how a megalopolis with millions of citizens provides information during a natural disaster.

As the Village Voice reported, NYC is evacuating the most vulnerable and putting out advisories but city websites are down. As a result, we’re watching how city government is forced to pivot to the Internet and commercial websites, including social media, to get information out.

Dropbox is hosting a Hurricane #Irene Evacuation PDF (It’s not completely clear if city government uploaded the PDF or not, when this post was published). NYC chief digital officer Rachel Sterne and the official NYC.gov Twitter account have acknowledged and apologized for the outage and pointed citizens to docstoc.com for the official evacuation map:

NYC Hurricane Evacuation Map

Notably, Mayor Bloomberg’s staff has uploaded the New York City Hurricane Evacuation Zones PDF to his personal website, MikeBloomberg.com, and tweeted it out. We’re in unexplored territory here, in terms of a mayor sharing information this way, but in the context of incoming weather, it’s hard to fault the move, though it’s likely inevitable.. [Ed: As Nick Clark Judd pointed out in his excellent post on how governments are scrambling to deliver information to citizens looking for hurricane information online, Mayor Bloomberg has posted press releases and other information to his website several times before.]

What is clear, amidst growing concerns of a multi-billion dollar disaster, is that the New York City government’s website hosting strategy needs to be revisited. According to Provide Security, NYC servers are hosted in a data center in Brooklyn. Spikes in demand are precisely what cloud computing offers to the private sector and, increasingly, to federal government. As hurricane clouds gather, it’s probably past time for New York government to get familiar into cloudbursting or move quickly implementing internal architectures that include a private cloud, through Nebula or something similar, to handle the load. In the context of disasters, surge capacity for government websites is no longer a “nice-to-have” — it’s a must-have.

UPDATE: Civic technologist Philip Ashlock is mirroring NYC Irene data & links on Amazon Web Services (AWS). Even though NYC didn’t move critical resources to the cloud itself, a member of New York City’s technology community stepped up to help the city and citizens in a crisis. That’s Gov 2.0 in action:

Maps

NYC.gov Hurricane Evacuation Zone Finder
OASIS Map (more info)
ArcGIS Map
hurricane_map_english.pdf 

Raw Data

googleearth_hurricane_zone.kmz 
Shapefiles: OEM_HurricaneEvacCenters_001.zip
Shapefiles: OEM_HurricaneEvacZones_001.zip

Hurricane resources from the Feds

The federal government is providing information on Hurricane Irene at Hurricanes.gov and sharing news and advisories in real-time on the radio, television, mobile devices and online using social media channels. A curated list from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (@FEMA) is embedded below:

If you use Twitter, a key follow this weekend is FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, who tweets at @CraigAtFEMA. This morning, Fugate tweeted out a link to new digital tools, including a FEMA Android app and text shortcodes. If you’re at risk, this information is for you. Shayne Adamski, senior manager for digital engagement, blogged the details:

In the new FEMA App, you’ll be able to:

  • Check off the items you have in your family’s emergency kit,
  • Enter your family emergency meeting locations,
  • Review safety tips on what to do before, during and after a disaster,
  • View a map of shelters and disaster recovery centers across the U.S., and
  • Read our latest blog posts.

When we built the app, we kept the disaster survivor in mind, making sure much of the information would be available even if cell phone service isn’t, so you’ll be able to access the important information on how to safe after a disaster, as well as your family emergency meeting locations.

So as Administrator Fugate said, you can download our app today in the Android market, and look for FEMA App for Blackberry version 6 devices and iPhones in the coming weeks.

FEMA Text Messages 

A new and separate service from the new app, our text message updates will allow cell phone users to receive text message updates from FEMA.

  • Text PREPARE to 43362 (4FEMA) to sign up to receive monthly disaster safety tips
  • Text SHELTER + your ZIP code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest shelter in your area (example: shelter 12345)
    (For availability of shelters and services, contact your local emergency management agency.)
  • Text DRC + your ZIP code to 44362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest disaster recovery center in your area (for example, if you lived in Annandale, Virginia with a Zip Code of 22003, you’d text DRC 22003).

We’re excited to provide these two new ways you can access information on your mobile device, in addition to our already existing mobile site – m.fema.gov. Stay tuned to our blog, Facebook and Twitter channels as we roll out our app to the remaining smartphone operating systems and make enhancements to our text messages program.

So download the app or text PREPARE to 44362, and then leave us a comment and let us know what you think. We encourage you to tell a family member, friend, or neighbor as well, so they can have disaster safety information always at their fingertips.

[Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory]

With a new road map, New York City aims to be the nation’s premier digital city

Today, New York City released its strategy to use technology to improve productivity, save money, attract startups and upgrade the services it provides to citizens. That’s a tall order, but then New Yorkers have rarely been know to think small or dream moderately.

“We want New York City to be the nation’s premier digital city – in how local government interacts with New Yorkers, in how New Yorkers have access to and capitalize on new technologies, and in how our tech and digital media sectors evolve, grow businesses and create jobs,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement. His office released an official statement digital roadmap at MikeBloomberg.com. “NYC’s #digitalroadmap has 4 goals: access, open government, citizen engagement & expanding NYC’s digital job growth,” tweeted Bloomberg after the announcement.

Nick Judd secured an advance copy of NYC’s road map to the digital city over at techPresident, which I’ve embedded below, and has this analysis of some of the important bytes.

There are no explicit plans in the report for increasing the number of available datasets — such as more detailed city budget data — but do include an “apps wishlist” to streamline the process of requesting more data.

Implementing the recommendations in the report will in large part be the responsibility of city Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications Commissioner Carole Post, who is already in the process of pushing internally for updated city IT.

Archived video of today’s announcement by Mayor Bloomberg and NYC chief digital officer Rachel Sterne (which was, appropriately, livestreamed online) is embedded below.

Watch live streaming video from nycgov at livestream.com

While some media outlets will focus on NYC embracing Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare as digital partners, a notable aspect of today’s news that may fly under the radar may be that NYC.gov will be adding APIs for Open311, its open data mine and other Web efforts. Those are the open government pillars that will support New York City’s effort to architect a city as a platform. For more on how New York City is citizensourcing smarter government, head on over to Radar.

Social media will play a role in the months ahead. When Adam Sharp, Twitter’s government guy, tweeted out the Wall Street Journal above, he highlighted a feature that melds social media with old school mobile technology: the use of “Fast Follow,” a function that goes back to Twitter’s earliest days.

“New Yorkers who want to follow @nycgov by SMS can text “follow nycgov” to 40404. No @Twitter acct or computer needed,” tweeted Sharp.

That means that every resident with a phone call can receive updates from the city’s official account. It will be interesting to see if city government advertises that to its residents over the coming months, particularly in areas where Internet penetration rates are lower.

Anil Dash, native New Yorker, blogger and entrepreneur, highlighted something important in the plan that transcended any particular initiative, technology or policy: it captures New York City government thinking about the Web as a public space.

It’s an extraordinary document, and as someone who loves the web, civic engagement, public infrastructure and New York City, it feels like a momentous accomplishment, even though it marks the beginning of a years-long process, not just the end of a months-long one.

But the single biggest lesson I got from the 65-page, 11.8mb PDF is a simple one: The greatest city in the world can take shared public spaces online as seriously as it takes its public spaces in the physical world.

As you’d expect, there’s a press release about the Digital Road Map, but more reassuringly, the document demonstrates the idea of the web as public space throughout, making the idea explicit on page 43:

Maintaining digital ‘public spaces’ such as nyc.gov or 311 Online is equally important as maintaining physical public spaces like Prospect Park or the New York Public Library. Both digital and physical should be welcoming, accessible, cared for, and easy to navigate. Both must provide value to New Yorkers. And for both, regular stewardship and improvements are a necessity.

New York City’s road map for a digital city plan is embedded below. You also can download the digital city roadmap as a PDF.

NYC ODC 90day Report 5-15C

UPDATE: There are some concerns about what happens next out there in the community. New York City resident and director of the CUNY Mapping Service at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY) Steven Romalewski also listened in on the announcement and blogged his concerns about ‘open data fatigue“:

I always worry when I see the city touting its technology efforts without also including local Community Boards, neighborhood groups, business advocates, urban planners, other elected officials, etc. who rely on access to public data so they can hold government accountable and do their jobs better. In my view, these groups need the data moreso than app developers. That is why open data efforts and policies are so important.

But the city seems more focused on apps than on community. I understand the economic development appeal of fostering startups. But the open data movement long predated apps.  I highlighted this in my post last year (see the “Misplaced Priorities” section).

Apps are great (I use them constantly, and I’ve even developed one myself). And kudos to the city and its agencies for responding to app developers and making data more open so the developers can do great things with the data (things even the city might not do).

I just hope the latest announcements by the city will result in more real and lasting efforts to make data easier to access than the latest check-in craze. The Mayor already expressed some hesitation to making data accessible when a reporter asked him about CrashStat. CrashStat is a great example of my point — it wasn’t created to be an “app” per se; it’s an effort by a local nonprofit group to use public data to educate the public and hold government agencies more accountable about traffic injuries and fatalities. But the Mayor said he didn’t even know what CrashStat was, while making excuses about not making data available if it’s not in electronic format, or needs to be vetted, or is “sensitive”.  Blah blah blah – we’ve heard all that before and it undermines my confidence in the city’s pronouncements that more data will really be made open.

Architecting a city as a platform [VIDEO]

The 21st century metropolis can be a platform for citizens, government and business to build upon. The vision of New York City as a data platform has been getting some traction of late as the Big Apple’s first chief digital officer, Rachel Sterne, makes the rounds on the conference circuit. In the video below, Sterne gives a talk the recent PSFK Conference where she highlights various digital initiatives that NYC has rolled out.

PSFK CONFERENCE NYC 2011: Rachel Sterne from Piers Fawkes on Vimeo.

During her talk, Sterne talks about “The Daily Pothole,” how NYC is tumbling, QR code technology on building permits, a NYC 311 app and using Twitter, amongst other themes.

For more on how New York City is citizensourcing smarter government, head on over to Radar.

[Hat tip: PSFK]

Crowdsourcing where to put QR codes in NYC

This February, New York City adopted QR codes in a significant way. “QR” stands for “quick response” codes. QR codes enable somebody with the appropriate software and hardware to quickly scan a code for information from any direction. As TechCrunch reported, NYC will put QR codes on all of its building permits.

The QR codes will link users to a mobile version of the Department of Buildings Information System, and will give them the option to click a link that will initiate a phone call to the city’s 311 phone service, where they can register a complaint about noise, safety or other concerns.

As permits at 975,000 building and construction sites that already have them are replaced, they will have QR codes added; all New York City permits are expected to have QR codes by roughly 2013.

QR Code on Love ArtPhoto illustration by Zachary M. Seward based on a photo by Chris Goldberg

QR codes can be scanned by smartphones equipped with relevant software in much the same way that a handheld scanner can scan the more familiar horizontal barcodes used globally in shipping and retail industries. Their use is hardly limited to building permits, however, as Zach Seward pointed out at the Wall Street Journal:

In 2011, you’re likely to see more QR codes on billboards, print publications, museum placards — anywhere with limited space and lots of information to convey. On city building permits, scanning the QR code will direct you to a website with more information about the construction project, if you’re into that.

But the New Yorkers who responded to Sterne are more excited about the prospect of applying QR codes to the city’s public-transit system. One  common suggestion: place them at bus stops, where schedules aren’t always displayed and are often out of date.

So where should New York City place QR codes? As Seward reported, New York City’s chief digital officer, Rachel Sterne, is looking for ideas. Seward captured her questions and the responses of citizens (including this correspondent) using Storify:

AP covers Gov 2.0 and open government in US cities as citizensourcing grows

QR Codes on NYC building permits
Mayor Bloomberg, Deputy Mayor for Operations Goldsmith and Buildings Commissioner LiMandri announced the use of Quick Response (QR) codes on all Department of Buildings permits, providing New Yorkers with instant access to information related to buildings and construction sites throughout New York City.
As people who follow this blog know well, there’s a new movement afoot to make government work better through technology. This week, Samantha Gross covered the trend for the Associated Press, publishing a widely syndicated piece on how cities are using tech to cull ideas from citizens. In the private sector, leveraging collective intelligence is often called crowdsourcing. In open government, it’s citizensourcing — and in cities around the country, the approach is gaining traction:

Government officials tout such projects as money-savers that increase efficiency and improve transparency. Citizen advocates for the programs argue they offer something deeper — an opportunity to reignite civic responsibility and community participation.

In some ways, the new approach is simply a high-tech version of an old concept, says Ben Berkowitz, the CEO of SeeClickFix, which helps citizens post pothole-type complaints and track whether they’ve been addressed.

“It’s participatory democracy,” he says. “Open government … is something that was laid out by Thomas Jefferson pretty early on. This is just a way to realize that vision.”

Efforts towards open government in the United States remain in beta. It’s early days yet for all of these trends. On this day, however, it’s good news for the community that the AP reported a “Gov 2.0” approach took off in Manor, Texas because of financial concerns.

As Gross reported, city officials in Manor “decided they wanted to engage residents and beef up services beyond the means of their modest budget.” The approaches they chose to tap into the local civic surplus, including ideation platforms, QR codes and open source publishing, have been widely documented. Over the past month, QR codes and citizensourcing have been adopted in New York City.

Below, one of the officials – former Manor CIO Dustin Haisler – talks about what Manor did to implement Gov 2.0, speaking from a business perspective:

There’s a long road ahead for citizens, government and technology. This story in the Associated Press, however, will means that a few more citizens will be aware that change is afoot.

New York City launches 311 online service request map

If you read Steven B. Johnson, you know that 100 million 311 calls reveal a lot about New York. Now citizens can surf over to look at those 311 requests every day. Today, New York City launched a 311 online service request map.

“The launch of the 311 Service Request Map is another milestone in the City’s efforts to improve the way we report 311 data to the public,” said Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith in a prepared statement. “The release of this information will better enable the public and elected officials to hold the City accountable for the services we provide. Putting better information into the hands of community leaders across the five boroughs increases transparency and allows us to collaboratively address the problems that neighborhoods face.”

It appears that Inwood and Washington Heights are making the most 311 service requests, according to the latest version of the map.

This 311 online service request map is a good start, with layers, custom searches and a clean design. Querying for those layers is a bit slow but returns relevant results for bike parking or continuing education, although many of the other layers appear to be grayed out and “coming soon.” Querying for specific request types was even slower, so for the moment I can’t find out where complaints about poison ivy, illegal animals or noisy church services are concentrated.

Early reviews have generally been positive but guarded, with room to grow. It’s a “huge step forward, long way to go,” tweeted Philip Ashlock. They “could get something better for free (eg mobile) by doing #Open311 API instead,” referring to the idea of government as a platform.

I “would much rather have the data raw via an API in an open [format] than the map UI (which isn’t all bad) in the way,” tweeted Mark Headd.

The “NYC 311 map is impressive technically, but lacks context (time period?), a legend (Maps 101), & metadata. I wonder if they talked to users before implementing it,” tweeted Steven Romalewski. “Also, the city obviously has the address-level 311 data. It’d be nice if they published the raw data so others could analyze it (residents & NYC Council reps have been asking for this for years). That would indicate a real commitment to transparency.”

UPDATE: Nick Judd published an excellent post on the New York City 311 map at techPresident, where he reports that “raw complaint data from 311 on the city’s data repository, the NYC DataMine, later this year, according to a city spokesman.” Judd also fills in a couple of key details, like:

  • The application was built using the city’s public city-wide geospatial information system, CityMap
  • Requests for literature are not included in the NYC 311 map
  • Deputy Mayor Stephen P. Goldsmith acknowledged in a press conference today, reported on by the New York Times, “this addition to the city’s open data efforts was a nod to transparency advocates.”

“Some of this will not be entirely exciting for those of us whose job it is to make sure that the holes in the street are filled and the trash is picked up because it’ll provide visibility to what we are or not doing,” Mr. Goldsmith said. “And some of you will enjoy that visibility.”

As Judd links out, in the New York Times Cityroom blog has good coverage of the step towards getting a visual on New Yorkers’ 311 calls.