As reported by Fast Company, with the mid-2009 launch of DataSF.org, Bay-area Californians can now pour over information on everything from parking spaces to local fires, from water quality at beaches to the demographics of city employees. Not only is the information freely available, it is also posted in formats that can be read by computers. And if computers can manipulate the data, it can be handily whittled into city-enhancing iPhone apps.
The trend toward urban open-data initiatives is flourishing. Examples abound suggesting that by providing constituents with the raw material to address concerns and irritations of city living, they will find ways of shaping it into tools that can alleviate the cost needed to resolve them internally. San Francisco’s initiative, for example, has resulted in at least 30 apps on everything from crime rates to recycling facilities.
In addition, New York City’s NYC Big Apps competition offered a total of $20,000 to a number of winning apps that provided directions to nearby subway stations, library maps, even a user-generated tree census. While these tools may seem anecdotally useful and arguably not transformative in addressing the real, resource-intensive challenges that cities face, the implication is that $20,000 is a lot less than municipalities might pay to the contract the development of even one software tool, let alone the the literally dozens entered in the competition, now available for download.
This is a point that cannot be overemphasized: if cities provide the medium or the information necessary to address the problems they lack the resources to tackle in-house, they can tap into the skills of those seeking a connection to their cities on their own web-savvy terms. Volunteerism 2.0, so to speak.
For example, Apps4Good is a Halifax-based consortium of developers who build iPhone apps whose proceeds go toward local charities like Feed Nova Scotia and Phoenix Youth Programs. Although Apps4Good’s tools do not necessarily rely on securing information other than what is publicly available (the group’s Meet Me Here is a map-based calendar invite), it is merely one of many examples of the evolving role of mobile technology in responding to social and civic challenges.
For those who might argue that people won’t help for free, it’s true that open data won’t cure all urban ills. But it’s also true that Wikipedia effectively decimated the commercial prospects of any digital encyclopedia for which users were – gasp! – expected to pay. Have a more specific question? Yahoo Answers offers a forum where queries from “Is the North End of Halifax a safe place to live?” to “Are the Jonas Brothers ever coming to Halifax?” are addressed by those who, although perhaps not experts, are at least willing to volunteer their perspectives.
Cities forever bemoan a stretched-too-thin lack of resources, but oftentimes, software developers with an interest in contributing to their communities can design these tools for free for fun. Admittedly, iPhone apps are not going to eliminate poverty, pave sidewalks, and sort our recyclables. But free and easy access to information provides so obvious an opportunity to cost-effectively address concerns that it would be positively absurd to overlook it. With pressing concerns about losing talent, Atlantic Canada’s cities, with their manageable size and scale, can create a compelling connections with their citizens through open data. Holding hostage information demonstrates a distrust in its potential users; sharing it freely, on the other hand, validates and encourages the meaningful contributions these tools’ users can make.
Where governments resist open data, particularly given the transparency pressures heightened by now-viral information-sharing, they risk fostering disgruntled, would-be problem-solvers. Wikipedia, with its 3.3 million English-language articles, relies entirely on the altruism of its contributors and their enthusiasm in sharing expertise in their free time. For those of us outside San Francisco, imagine the possibilities if urban-data guardians shared perspectives with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who hailed, “There’s a tremendous amount of tech talent here… We’d be fools not to leverage it.”