Your City Needs These 7 Open Data Apps
The urban experience is unique, exciting and challenging.
To improve it, several major cities opened their data to let people develop useful and interesting apps. “While all of our approaches are a bit different, we are all using open data and new technology to explore new ways of improving our cities with and for our residents,” says James Solomon, who directs the Street Bump project (discussed below) in Boston.
We browsed the web and app stores to find seven innovative apps that we think should be available in every major city across the globe. From public art guides to restaurant health code information, bike paths to park guides, these apps make cities safer, governments more transparent and urban denizens more informed. It’s a win-win for all.
Check out the seven apps below, and tell us in the comments if you’d use any of them. Does your city have a cool app that more people should be using? Leave that in the comments, too.
What’s the digital equivalent of seeing a rat or cockroach scurry across the kitchen of a restaurant? Checking in on Foursquare and getting a text about a restaurant’s health code violations from DontEat.at. And that’s exactly what Max Stoller created.
Stoller had been checking out NYC’s open data repository, when he stumbled upon restaurant inspection dataset, which is updated weekly. “I had previously experimented with Foursquare’s API and thought the combination would make for a great hack,” says Stoller. “I ended up building it for the BigApps competition.”
DontEat.at won two awards at the NYC BigApps competition and landed Stoller an internship at Foursquare, but his crowning achievement was getting an angry tweet from a New York chef who received a DontEat.at tweet at her own restaurant. “At that point, I knew I made it,” says Stoller.
While Stoller hopes to roll the app out to other cities, the dataset formats vary, making it difficult to add new cities. He’s considering open-sourcing the project to the developer community.
2. Cycle Atlanta
With bike-sharing programs on the rise and an emphasis on biking as a sustainable mode of transport, the city of Atlanta recently launched Cycle Atlanta for iPhone and Android. The app was developed at Georgia Tech, and it tracks cycling routes (as well as potholes and other problems) to help the city make strategic cycling decisions. It’s sort of like Waze — if you use the app every time you ride, the route is uploaded to a server, which the city will use to pinpoint where people are and aren’t cycling, which will inform decisions about where to spend money on cycling infrastructure, like bike paths.
A similar app exists in San Francisco, CycleTracks.
3. San Francisco Recreation and Parks
The SF Rec and Park App is a free app for San Francisco’s citizens and tourists. The app, developed by Appallicious, helps people find and navigate thousands of parks, playgrounds, dog runs, museums, recreation centers, picnic tables, gardens, public restrooms and other points of interest and facilities that are maintained by the city of San Francisco. App users can search, filter and get to these destinations via a GPS-enabled mobile map. The app is heavily focused on discovery, so future updates will include ticketing, multi-day park passes, mobile payment for concessions, classes, public art, memberships, walking tours through QR codes and location-based technology.
4. Bus Guru
In addition to offering real-time commuting information, the app also tells users where they can top off their Oyster Card, search for any bus stop in the system, save bus stops (like the one right outside your home), see any service disruptions and plan a journey.
The systems are timed on the city side of things — opening that data to the public via an app would eliminate a few headaches and the seemingly endless waiting game at the local bus stop.
5. The Street Bump
Like Cycle Atlanta’s passive crowdsourcing mechanism, Boston’s Street Bump works in the background while you drive around your city, collecting data about the smoothness of your ride (and differentiating between a pothole and a train track). This information helps the city of Boston get details about urgent problems and informs the city’s long-term investment plans. The free app is a project of Boston’s Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in collaboration with InnoCentive crowdsourcing software, and its goal is to “solve the pothole problem once and for all.”
Each year, the city fills 19,000 potholes; to date, Street Bump has recorded 1,654 trips, detecting 89,873 bumps. If the city can detect and fill potholes more quickly, then it can improve drivers’ experience of the roads and reduce their repair bills. But the app goes above and beyond just potholes. “We are using the data to prioritize castings in need of repair (such as manhole covers, which often sink or crack) … [and] mapping the obstacles detected to assist the city in determining which roads it will repave,” says James Solomon, the Street Bump Director at Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston. Street Bump is only in use on Boston for now, but the city plans to open-source it so any city can adopt the technology and improve its roads.
“We hope opening a new type of city-constituent relationship creates a closer connection and better communication between Boston and its citizens,” says Solomon.
City legislation can be confusing to keep track of. Mjumbe Poe, a Code for America fellow, launched Councilmatic during his year in Philadelphia, so he and other residents could get email subscriptions about the legislation that’s relevant to them. “There was some controversial legislation making its way through the Philly Council, and all I wanted was the history of the legislation without media spin,” says Poe. “I realized I don’t really have a good idea of what legislation looks like when it’s going through Council, so I wrote a scraper to give me an RSS feed of bills and resolutions.” At a hackathon, he built out the functionality for people to subscribe via email, and he’s been adding features ever since to help citizens stay abreast of legislation.
Poe says some Philly legislators, such Bill Green, have been very receptive to the idea, but he adds that the city itself has not opened up the data necessary for a project like Councilmatic in a useful format — there’s a human-readable format (per council rules), but not a format actionable by apps. “It seems like it’s just not on anyone’s priority list” says Poe. The ideal situation for Philadelphia and cities everywhere, says Poe, would be if companies making legislative management system software for cities, such as Granicus, would build publicly available APIs into their products on a large scale. “We should put pressure on cities to encourage LMS makers to make open APIs a priority,” says Poe.
Until then, there’s Councilmatic.
A city’s art is indicative of its culture, and no city knows that more than Philadelphia, a city covered by more than 3,000 murals, thanks to the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. To help art fiends, tourists and residents alike learn about the murals that surround them, Code for America fellows Anna Bloom and John Mertens developed the living art map Muralapp, while working with the Philadelphia government.
Before starting Code for America, Bloom was admiring the street art in the Bay Area and wanted to get to know it better. She thought of a community-curated app. “Public art can tell you the fabric of the city — it tells you about history and people, it engages and informs at the same time,” says Bloom. “It’s supposed to engage, it’s supposed to honor, it’s meant to be a part of the city and it finds its meaning in doing so.”
Last year, Bloom worked with CfA fellows John Mertens, Max Ogden and Matt Blair (who created a similar app in Portland, PublicArtPDX) on the Mural App project. “Part of what I liked about the project is that it achieved two big goals that Code for America had in mind: It opened government data in a standard machine-readable format so that others could use it, and it proved that if there was a standard and that if cities could open that data, then one technology could be reused in several cities,” says Bloom.
Since the app was developed, the team has collaborated with seven city governments — Portland, Seattle, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, Honolulu and Norfolk, Va. — and worked with Foursquare to create venues for each mural.
The CfA fellowship is just one year, so while the fellows had helped people find art, they wanted to app users to engage with it and upload their own photos. So Bloom connected with Lauren Ellen McCann of Sunlight Foundation to build an even better app for San Francisco; they set up a Kickstarter campaign which failed, but caught the attention of Converse, which is now funding the $25,000 project. The app should launch in early 2012 — to date, Bloom and McCann have 450 pieces of art mapped by citizens and 1,500 pieces of art mapped from local government organizations.
“What I think we are trying to do with our public art project is help more fully realize public art’s potential to get people engaged with ideas, community, history and culture — to appreciate those things, communicate with others about it, make it relevant,” says Bloom.