Open data movement looks to cultivate ecology for civic applications

In the fall of 2008, Washington, DC’s technology office developed a data catalog that contained a bevy of municipal data, open to the public. The catalog featured real-time crime feeds, school test scores, and poverty indicators, among other measures. Then CTO Vivek Kendra, turned to an area company called iStrategyLabs to augment those data streams into something useful for the city’s citizens, tourists, businesses and government agencies. Rather than use the traditional model of development, iStrategyLabs facilitated a contest, called Apps for Democracy, allowing the public to compete in making civic applications using the city’s data.

Just over one year later, DC’s open data catalog has led to similar efforts in San Francisco, Vancouver, B.C., New York City, and last week, Toronto. European countries, like Belgium, Denmark, Germany and Finland are also looking to create similar competitions.

“The space is evolving incredibly fast,” iStrategyLabs CEO Peter Corbett told CivSource in an interview Wednesday. Mr. Corbett believes the future of open data and civic applications is limitless, if governments looking to get citizen developers involved follow a few key steps. Mr. Corbett is also cultivating the next generation of civic-minded technologists through a new program, called Code for America.

“This fall, I spoke on the future of open cities, where I took a two and five-year view of where [the open data movement] is all going. I spoke about this idea of augmented reality, which allows you to see a new layer to the city you didn’t see before due to data streams and geolocation,” he said. “Apparently I was wrong, because that came out last week!”

A company called Layar makes a free application, which allows users to interlay real-time digital information on top of reality through the camera of a mobile phone. Working with the Sunlight Foundation’s Sunlight Labs, Layar’s app can now display Recovery Act projects and related data.

This data is taken from the's Where Is The Money Going? map, which provides a KML file containing all recipient reported Contracts.

This data is taken from the, which provides a KML file containing all recipient reported Contracts. Source: Sunlight Labs

Creating a civic applications ecology is important, Mr. Corbett says, so ideas developed in D.C. can be used in Minneapolis, Denver and San Diego. But to do that, open-source data standards should be created and applied to different levels and jurisdictions of government.

“Another piece in that two-year timeframe was a municipal data standardization piece, which I think is pretty important to help foster wider use of what some of these cities are creating,” Mr. Corbett said.

But perhaps more important, is that governments looking to start building civic applications through their citizens, should tap their local talent early in the process.

“The first thing state and local government should do is find their local tech community leaders and organizers. You need to get young, fresh geek minds in the mix as soon as possible.” He mentioned going to and to find who is doing what already in the technology community. “If you come at them with a fully-baked approach they won’t pay attention. They need to build it with you.”

Of course, not every city is New York, DC, or San Francisco. Most municipal governments have a hard time recruiting top talent, let alone the kinds of out-of-the-box-thinking talent required to pull off the next disruptive technology. In order to help facilitate this recruitment, Corbett and some of his fellow open data evangelists have taken a page from Teach for America.

Still in its infancy, Code for America would place developers and coders within state and municipal government to build projects for three or four months, Corbett said. The group, founded by Jen Pahlka and directed by minds like Tim O’Reilly, seeks to create an organization for developers to augment government through technology, according to Mr. Corbett. “It is similar to the Mozilla Foundation but for civic apps – we will maintain and curate specific apps that are open source and useful for state and local government to share.”

When the question of “where does this go from here” comes up, it’s hard to believe Apps for Democracy is almost one year old. But according to Mr. Corbett, the fire hose of data is still only at a trickle. And what comes out next may be anyone’s guess.

“First and foremost, we’ll see a lot more data from a lot more places. Not just municipal and federal government, but I think soon we’ll see the vaults of academia open – maybe within the next year.” According to Corbett, every year US-based colleges and universities invest approximately $48 billion in research and development, while only making $1.5 billion on what’s produced. So there are a lot of people looking for a way to develop a “university data catalog.”

“I also think people will start asking for hard data. People will start saying ‘We have data keeping track of trains and busses, great. But where’s the data for the Mayor’s personal contributions and social contacts?'”

“I personally am not focused on advocacy and activism but some people are, so it’s really just a matter of time. Right now [governments] are not exposing the potentially embarrassing stuff – which will create real transparency and be good for democracy. But I wonder what it will do to the open data movement.”