An advocacy workgroup to change the way Milwaukee uses and shares critical data. Learn More ' '

Living Cities: The Civic Technology Movement

NOTE: This post is not from MDI. It was from a post by Zac Townsend on the Living Cities Blog. The original publish date was August 6th, 2012.

Dreaming Bigger in the Civic Technology Movement

A vibrant technical community has recently coalesced around creatively solving civic problems. Code for America is just the best example of the burgeoning group of organizations building well-designed, well-executed, and modern web or mobile apps that solve civic issues. Apps for Democracy, BigApps in New York City, and other App competitions, as well as hackathons, have all engaged developers and designers in engaging social and civic data, while Boston, San Francisco, and Philadelphia have led the way in building mobile and web apps to engage citizens outside the traditional information technology structures.

Yet, despite their promise, these applications are often at the periphery of government services and citizen need. Of course we should know where our children’s school buses are, whether our streets have been plowed, and what vacant properties exist in our cities. But, though useful, these tools are small fry. The civic technology movement can – and therefore must – dream bigger, and attempt to remake how technology is used in the core functioning of government.

Before I explain two complementary paths toward remaking technology in government, let’s look at the purpose of technology in government, and the current path toward building and using it.

Technology in government should serve one of two purposes: it should either improve the services that government provides its citizens, or it should more efficiently (i.e. more cheaply) provide those services. The difficulty is that while technology is core to the business of government, it is not core to the mission of government (a description I first heard from Brett Goldstein). To the outside observer, it isn’t obvious how a dollar spent on technology could also be a dollar spent on supporting low-income families, or putting more police on our street.

So how do local governments procure technology? They do one of two things. On the one hand, cities can purchase a closed-source, proprietary solution from a large vendor, who then charges them to service the system, to upgrade regularly, and to customize the solution to the city. On the other hand, cities can either procure, or deploy internally, development resources to build a bespoke solution. In either case, the resultant systems often will not use cutting-edge technologies or best practices in service delivery. They are closed-source, expensive, and lack the user-centric or agile approaches that permeate the private IT sector. This current technological ecosystem has led to interoperability problems, legacy systems up to thirty years old, and a service sector dominated by large players with little incentive to innovate. As a result, technology is often – and unnecessarily – the bottleneck to implementing innovative or best-practice non-technological ideas in government.

This ecosystem is unacceptable, and must be disrupted. Not at the edges. Not through relatively superficial apps. But through holistic change.

Every local government has some core technology systems – systems like human resources, budgeting and financial, customer relationship management (often based around 311), contract management, legislative, asset and property management, tax assessment and collections, and others. All are currently procured or built by each local government separately and at great expense, diverting resources away from critical services.

I propose two paths forward to disrupt the ecosystem: combined purchasing power through standards, and an open source suite.


Despite the fact that cities ultimately need many of the same systems, we currently purchase our software separately and without coordination. One option is for a collection of cities across the country to draft and agree to a set of core principles in government technology that includes interoperability and some standard of openness. Crucially, if this were coupled with a commitment from the Mayors of those cities to procure most of their technologies based on which products best met these principles, and to write these principles into most requests for proposals, then the ecosystem would begin to shift. It would take time, but the combined purchasing power of ten or fifteen large cities would slowly shift technology in government in a direction that better favors the consumer – that is, us. Standards are a viable, low-cost, low-commitment path forward. Complete change would take time – maybe decades – but standards would likely lower costs and improve services quickly, benefits that would only increase over time.

Open-Source Suite

To jump-start civic innovation in core government systems, a suite of open-source software should be created which has components that address each of the systems I listed above. This suite should be designed from the start with a citizen-centric view. It should have open data and transparency at its core. It could have best practices built in. It could allow any city to share code openly with other cities, and for upgrades to be propogated—for free—to cities based on others work.

Ideally, a collection of foundations and private funders would invest to have these systems built. Two or three small- or medium-sized cities could serve as pilot sites, and some minimal viable versions of the entire suite should be built. Initially, the suite should be built not to integrate with legacy systems, but as a complete suite of alpha products. The pilot cities would agree to switch completely over to the new system on a specified day. This wouldn’t be possible in New York, San Francisco, or Chicago, but the suite could easily be launched incrementally at, for example, and then one day there could be a complete switchover. These products could be built with an agile software development approach, where one iterates quickly through newer versions over weeks or months instead of years. Ultimately, there would exist a complete open-source suite that any government could implement as its core IT systems.

To steal an analogy from my open-source advocate friends, think of a plumber. You hire a plumber because he’s a skilled worker, not because he builds you a custom pipe system. It would be foolish to have your own unique pipe system. One still needs to hire someone to fix and improve the plumbing, but there is a basic system from which all plumbers are working. Just as standardized pipes are the basis of a thriving private plumbing sector, an open-source suite would not curtail private companies or the excellent work of skilled civic servants in information technology. Rather, by investing in building a common core set of applications, foundations and private funders would be building a pipe system that all cities could use at lower cost, built on the bedrock of best practices and modern IT standards.

Zac Townsend is Senior Technology Policy Adviser and Mayor’s Office Fellow in Newark, New Jersey. The opinions reflected in this post are his own.


Big Data in Big Cities means Big Influence

Check out this interesting video Big Data and the Big Apple from Foursquare’s Data Scientist Blake Shaw (@metablake). This is one great example of how a social tool (like Foursquare) can be used to plot and track large amounts of data in a particular city or area.

Tools like Foursquare can be used to track popular locations and people traffic, revealing the overall structure and flow of the city itself. Open platform applications like Foursquare could drastically influence urban development, as it shows everything from purchasing trends to frequented locations, all while capturing a large quantity of information. This means we could better strategically plan the future of our cities, using this real-time behavioral trend data.

Foursquare is both an app and a platform, so developers can build on Foursquare, pull data from Foursquare, connect to Foursquare, and more. The future of city and software development is these APIs paired with excellent data management.

This is the type of influence Big Data can have on Milwaukee, as more and more individuals and organizations adopt the open data policies encouraged by the Milwaukee Data Initiative.

How the New iPhone Will Expose Cities Lagging on Open Data

This article was published in July of 2012 in the Atlantic, on the Cities “The Big Fix” blog. The article was written by Emily Badger (@embadger).

Link to the original article:


How the New iPhone Will Expose Cities Lagging on Open Data

As you probably know by now, Apple is planning to ditch Google Maps when it releases the newest version of the iPhone later this year (a pandemonious event that could come as soon as next month, according to the latest rumors). The company announced back in June plans to produce its own mapping software. This is big news for cartography geeks, but it comes with a catch. Without Google Maps, the new Apple operating system won’t include the transit navigation capability that Google has worked with cities to pioneer over the last seven years.

Apple’s in-house software, in other words, will be able to tell you how to get from LaGuardia to Yankee Stadium by car, but not by public transit. For now, at least, Apple appears to be banking on third-party developers to fill that gap by creating transit tools you can download in the app store. But the strategy relies on a pretty big assumption. Third-party developers need open data to build these tools.

“Of course, that would only work in cities that are actually sharing their data,” says Sean Barbeau, a research associate at the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida.

Many cities still aren’t doing this, including big ones like Atlanta, Phoenix, and Detroit. Along with hundreds of other metros, these cities do provide their transit data directly to Google for use in Google Maps, using a standardized format Google developed known as the General Transit Feed Specification (or GTFS). Giving data to Google is not, however, what developers mean when they talk about “open data.”

Barbeau and others want transit agencies to publicly release their GTFS files to everybody, so that any third-party developer (and not just Google) might turn that raw data into useful apps. Open-data advocates have been calling on transit agencies to do this for years, ever since TriMet in Portland, Oregon, first offered to release its data to Google in 2005. But the arrival of the new iPhone is ramping up the urgency. Once the new operating system rolls out, iPhone users everywhere will lose Google Maps’ transit navigation. And iPhone users in cities like Detroit may not get replacements any time soon.

“This is why people have argued that open data is the best policy,” Barbeau says, “because you can’t really control what large vendors are going to do.”

Transit advocate City-Go-Round maintains a list of the more than 200 transit agencies in the U.S. that still don’t have open data. Its list of the top 10 largest laggards also includes Charlotte and the transportation authorities of Central and South Florida.* In the state of Georgia, there isn’t a single transit agency publicly sharing its data.

“For many of the agencies, it was primarily that they didn’t realize how valuable this was,” says Kari Watkins, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech. “They didn’t realize there were actually that many developers out there who would want to have access to it and who would create these apps for free around the data.”

Some cities have feared the legal and security implications of ceding control over their information. And others have had a more prosaic concern. “They thought if these developers are out there,” Watkins says, “and if they really want our data, should we be making money off it?”

This isn’t quite as crass as it sounds. Most transit agencies are strapped for cash these days, and they can be forgiven for confusing their open data with a revenue stream. But by now dozens of cities have demonstrated that free open data can only help their customers.

Now the Atlanta Regional Commission is finally planning this fall to release data from the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, in a clearinghouse alongside data from the rest of its regional agencies. Watkins, who has been arguing that case with her students, plans to host a developers conference at Georgia Tech in conjunction with the release to jumpstart the city’s new transit-app ecosystem.

Phoenix’s Public Transit Department says it is also now planning to release publicly all of their data through a portal run by the Valley Metro regional agency, although they don’t yet have a timeline for when that will happen.

The iPhone may ultimately prove to be a catalyst for pushing open data in the cities that are still holdouts. But it also poses another question: Can dozens of transit apps in the iPhone store still serve riders as well as Google Maps?

“The part I worry about is that if this is not an obvious thing, it’s not going to have as big of an impact on mode choice,” Watkins says. Fewer people may spontaneously hop on the bus if they have to first search for and download an app just to tell them that the bus exists. “By having all the directions in the same app the way it is in Google Maps,” she says, “people might actually think ‘well what is this other transit button?’”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post included the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority among a list of agencies that don’t publicly release their GTFS files. The Cincinnati region now does, and aspiring developers can find the data here.