Growth is never by mere chance; it is the result of forces working together. - James Cash Penney
With this year's annual National Day of Civic Hacking quickly approaching, and as we ready our platform for its first civic hacker beta users during Albuquerque, New Mexico's event, we've been exploring exactly how we fit within the growing Open Data community as well as how we work together, what each stakeholder brings to the table and where the challenges to growth remain.
Our team at APPCityLife lives smack dab in the middle of the intersection of Open Data where the needs of city and school officials creating an official, sustainable mobile presence on shrinking budgets meets the needs the mobile needs of the people living in a community. It's been an exciting challenge to find solutions that address the wants and needs of the community that fit within the goals and budgets of cities, and we've gained a great deal of respect for all players involved. We've seen the significant value of identifying key stakeholders in Open Data initiatives and what each bring to the table. At APPCityLife, we don't see this as either/other proposition where independent developers seeking to serve this same community must lose in order for us to win. We see the landscape shaping up quite nicely for symbiotic support and collaboration that can be good for all of us - and bring even better options to those who benefit the most - the people who want fingertip access to information about their community.
The CIO of Palo Alto, California, Jonathan Reichental, Ph.D., is likely one of the most visible public officials supporting Open Data initiatives, and his comments regarding the importance of governments embracing open data are worth heeding. In an essay submitted to the Alliance for Innovation, he wrote:
"Government is in a period of extraordinary change. Demographics are shifting. Fiscal constraints continue to challenge service delivery. Communities are becoming more disconnected with one another and their governments, and participation in civic affairs is rapidly declining. Adding to the complexities, technology is rapidly changing the way cities provide services, and conduct outreach and civic engagement. Citizens increasingly expect to engage with their government in much the same way they pay bills online or find directions using their smartphone where communication is interactive and instantaneous. The role of government of course is more complicated than simply improving transactions."
Reichental isn't alone in his understanding that emerging technologies such as smart phones hold the potential to solve multiple civic challenges at once. 842 datasets are available from local governments, all curated, produced, and shared with data.gov, a federal clearinghouse for open data sets from around the world. All of these data sets have been made available by local civic administrators who see the value of sharing data with the public in hopes of generating more local access to information and services. The upside of local governments embracing open data initiatives is the availability of data that was previously housed in unusable formats behind firewalls out of reach to technologists who could create meaningful experiences around the available data. The downside is that data is often released in still-unusable formats for mobile curation and data sets released tend to be low-hanging fruit, data that is easily available, instead of data that would create the most useful applications.
Open Data Groups
With the Open Data initiative gaining moment all across the globe, the number of nonprofit and philanthropic agencies springing up has also grown exponentially. The role of these nonprofit and civic groups is vital to the growth of the movement as well as policing standards and creating a louder voice for all involved. Among the big players, of course, are Code For America, a California-based nonprofit working to bring together local governments and technologists to make better cities for everyone, and Data.gov, an online resource for "... data, tools, and resources to conduct research, develop web and mobile applications, design data visualizations, and more". CityMart calls itself a "a market place for the most innovative solution companies and visionary cities on the planet", and the collaborative effort of multiple global nonprofits like Oracle, the World Bank, The Global Compact Cities Programme, Imperial College London and the Clinton Global Initiative, is headed up by Co-founders Sascha Haselmayer and Jakob Rasmussen. The online resource requires heavy vetting and sign off from a company's current clients before being allowed to bid on global projects that are a match for the company's resources. The Open Data Foundation is focusing its efforts on creating standardization of metadata and open source solutions. Have an Open Data organization or are you part of one? Give your group a plug in the comments below; be sure to include a link where readers can find you online and a description of your focus.
The upside of nonprofit organizations formed and grown within open data initiatives is that these organizations create visibility, generate public and civic support and advocate for change on a level not possible by individuals. The downside is that these organizations often have a specific focus that may or may not serve the needs of citizens wanting access to their city's information in a useful mobile experience.
New York City hosts one of the biggest civic app challenges in the country, with BigApps introduced by then-mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2009 to "...make sure that all New Yorkers have access to the data that drives our city…catalyzing the creativity, intellect, and enterprising spirit of computer programmers to build tools that help us all improve our lives.” The annual competition attracts around 60 agencies contributing 750 datasets with $100,000 in prizes awarded. How many apps are submitted for a competition in the Big Apple? Over 230 apps. Similar competitions around the globe set out to pair local talent to take raw city data and create usable mobile apps from this data. The competitions are usually tied to prize money as well being featured on city websites.
The upside is that independent developers aren't hindered by the same set of boundaries usually required by city officials, and the problems civic hackers set out to solve are often more community-facing than those created by city officials. One of the most creative collaborations between independent developers and communities is the 1AM app, a community-driven app to help document, identify and view street art. An amazing database of works of street art is being compiled with each new upload, something that likely would never have been a priority for the government sector.
The downside is that many of the apps developed through hackathons are quickly abandoned and not maintained by the original group of competitors. And in competitions where developers lose all rights to the technology they've created, the original developer now has no motivation to maintain or upgrade the app. This can leave city and school administrators scrambling for more sustainable solutions.
Educational Institutions, including universities, community colleges, tech training schools, and even high schools are entering the arena of open data, taking advantage of freely available data to work with students, teaching vital technical skills to a new generation of potential technologists that will enter the workforce better prepared for the challenges facing a mobile development industry which grows increasing specialized and splintered. Partnerships between educational institutions, civic institutions and nonprofits create a thriving platform for generating content and value from open data initiatives. The upside is that through educational institutions, especially larger universities, a community gains access to talented engineers and research scientists who can lead the way to creative solutions built on top of open data. An added bonus is that each year, a new class of students gain similar understanding and might move a project forward. The downside is that the progress of projects within institutionalized learning is usually a much slower pace than can be accomplished through independent developers or PaaS/SaaS companies focused on serving the needs of open data initiatives. Projects are often abandoned, leading to a dearth of self-sustaining projects which are updated and upgraded as the mobile industry moves forward with new platform versions and devices.
PaaS and SaaS Providers
When mobile apps first emerged on the market in 2008, only a handful of programmers were capable of creating mobile apps. Demand drove the price of development so high that only companies with deep pockets could afford to own an app. With the evolution of the industry, a mass of companies emerged offering platform development services at much lower fees, although most of these companies also offered a more limited set of possible features within a mobile app. The same phenomenon is beginning to happen within the much newer industry of Open Data.
Companies like Socrata are beginning to solve problems for city IT departments through Platform As A Service (PAAS) models, easily developing, launching and maintaining open data feeds for multiple departments within one civic organization. PAAS has the upside of providing a specialized, highly technical skill set at a much lower cost than if cities tried to hire an internal workforce to do the same job. At APPCityLife, we take that support one step further by taking the open data feeds that have been developed either internally by civic IT departments or through companies like Socrata, and turning those feeds into useful mobile apps which not only have the potential to save cities and schools money by can even become revenue-generating engines for cash-strapped institutions. Our first public school app has not only already paid for itself but has also earned money for the school's foundation to use towards clothing drives, homeless children initiatives and other outreach programs. Our vision is to open up our platform to civic hackers across the globe and allow each community to build apps that serve the unique needs of citizens there. Through our self-serve coupon engine and its upcoming SDK, we'll be able to help these hackers not only generate revenue that allows them to become full time developers but will also help earn revenue for their cities while opening up affordable marketing to the businesses within that community.
We don't see Open Data as an either/or option; we see the massive possibilities of change on a global scale when all of the stakeholders work together to support, grow and sustain open data initiatives.