Yesterday, I published an interview with Michael Flowers, New York City’s director of analytics for the Office of Policy and Strategic Planning in Mayor Bloomberg’s office. In the interview, “Predictive data analytics is saving lives and taxpayer dollars in New York City,” Flowers talks about how his team of 5 is applying data analysis on the behalf of citizens to improve the efficiency of processes and more effectively detection of crimes, from financial fraud to cigarette bootlegging.
After our interview, Flowers followed up over email to tell me about a new working group on data analytics between New York City, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia. The working group, which recently launched a website at www.g-analytics.org, is sharing methodologies, ideas and strategies,
“Ultimately we want the group to grow and support as many cities interested in pursuing this approach as possible,” wrote Flowers. “It can get pretty lonely when you pursue something asymmetrical or untraditional in the government space, so we felt it was important to make it as simple as possible for like-minded cities to get started. There’s a great guy I work closely with out in Chicago on this effort – [Chicago chief data officer] Brett Goldstein; we talk at least twice a week.”
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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 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:
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 commonsuggestion: 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:
“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.”
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.”