Open Data for Cities: Enabling Citizens to Have the Apps They Want/Need

8 10 2009

During my recent resarch visit to PARC / the SF Bay Area, I came across a quite impressive iniative by the San Francisco Municipal Government aimed at opening up city data.

While I was aware of Obama’s initiative on a federal level, opening up municipal data seems to be interesting because in many cases it is closer to people everday’s concerns, such as finding a parking lot or avoiding areas with high levels of crime. is a website related to the San Francisco iniative, aiming to create transparency about the datasets made available by the city so far, such as the Disabled Parking Blue Zones dataset (.zip download). The general idea is to expose municipal data to the public, in order to enable the public to come up with innovations they feel are useful and/or important. Examples of such innovations can be found in a showcase, including an app for public health scores of SF restaurants or an iphone application for finding kid-friendly locations in the city.

Brilliant! What is also remarkable about these applications is that these innovations came to the city of San Francisco to no costs other than the costs related to publishing the data. Application development was done by developers who cared for a problem or companies who spotted a business opportunity.

In addition, publishing this data shifts – to some extent – responsibility from cities to citizens. If an application does not exist, people can certainly demand it to be provided – but more importantly – they can decide to develop it themselves, or organize in a way to get the applications they want developed indepedent of municipal approval.

After some further research, I was excited to see that the city of Toronto has a similar initiative, Toronto major David Miller announced it at Mash09 (watch the video here, the interesting stuff starts at ~12:40).

From a transcript of his speech (excerpts), David Miller brings the vision of such initiatives nicely to the point:

I am very pleased to announce today at Mesh09 the development of, which will be a catalogue of city generated data.  The data will be provided in standardized formats, will be machine readable, and will be updated regularly.  This will be launched in the fall of 2009 with an initial series of data sets, including static data like schedules, and some feeds updated in real time.

The benefits to the city of Toronto are extremely significant.  Individuals will find new ways to apply this data, improve city services, and expand their reach.  By sharing our information, the public can help us to improve services and create a more liveable city.  And as an open government, sharing data increases our transparency and accountability.

In his speech, Major Millor also challenged the audience to develop apps that would help the government spot deficiencies and improvement potentials based on the published data (e.g. which contractor fixes reported road damage fastest/sustainably/etc?). Citizens (or better: “developers”) can come up with new ways of tapping into the data to develop new and innovative applications that provide unique services to municipal communities.

In Graz (Wikipedia), I am currently teaching – among other courses – a course on Web Science at Graz University of Technology,  with more than 100 students per semester. I can see a huge opportunity to combine latest web algorithms, and hands-on experiences on the web with the creative potential of students in order to come up with a vast number of new and innovative applications that could have an exciting impact to the city.

My results of a quick review on related efforts in Graz however have been somewhat disappointing. The only resource I found was the GeoDataServer Graz (if you are aware of other resources please post them as a comment!), which provides web interfaces to mostly static, geographic information, such as “rivers in Graz” or a “3D model of Graz” – which are fine and exciting examples. But for open data, these initiatives would need to be expanded significantly, to include up-to-date data feeds, APIs, common data representation formats and – most importantly – a grande strategy that provides a common vision of how the city wants to go about governing its data. I think this will eventually take place. In any case, I’m looking forward to getting students excited to participate and contribute to such initiatives, as these iniatives can probably serve as an excellent vehicle to let students have an impact, and at the same time teach them about the importance of service and responsibility in societies.

This development also nicely ties in with some of my research interests on people’s motivations on the web: Enabling people to develop and have access to applications they want seems to be a tremendous shortcut to a more goal-oriented, useful, and ultimately more effective web. And with the advent of end user programming and tools such as Yahoo Pipes, there is not even a requirement for users to have lots of programming skills anymore to come up with useful applications or mashups.Motivations for Tagging: Categorization vs. DescriptionOpen Data for Cities: Enabling Citizens to Have the Apps They Want