Opportunities for Civic App Developers

There is no shortage of civic hacking events and app challenges taking place.

This is a good thing – it demonstrates the health of the civic hacking ecosystem, and the demand for open data to power these apps.

Google Places

However, two especially exciting opportunities for civic app developers seems to also be two of the less well known challenges currently going on. The Google Places API Developer Challenge, and the Knight News Challenge for Mobile.

The Google Places Challenge is being conducted in parternship with cities across the country and around the world – including Philadelphia. The idea is to use the Google Places API and mashup location-based data from local governments to create interesting and useful applications. Three lucky winners will get a trip to Google I/O and a chance to showcase their app. (Full disclosure – I am one of the judges of this challenge.)

The Knight News Challenge for Mobile is a unique opportunity to showcase ideas for using mobile devices and mobile access to “…improve news, information, democracy and communities.” This is a hugely exciting opportunity to pitch a solution to improve communities in an increasingly mobile world. Also, the idea of powering community change through mobile phones and devices is an idea I find exceptionally interesting.

I hope developers take a close look at these ongoing app contests – some great opportunities to reward people building great apps for their cities and communities.

Phones: The Key to the City

The ordinary telephone is among the most important and ubiquitous technologies in the world.

Several weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking at inciteXchange – an annual conference organized by the Center for Design and Innovation at Temple University’s Fox School of Business. The focus of the event was to bring together speakers on a diverse range of topics to present short talks aimed at inciting collaboration and innovation.

I gave a talk at this event entitled “Phone City,” which underscored the importance of telephones and mobile devices to our everyday lives, and – I believe – to the future of our cities.

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“Phind It For Me” Live in Philly

Really excited to launch a new OpenGov project in Philadelphia – Phind It For Me.

The service is built on PHLAPI and the point data sets it houses. As such, one could understand why I’d be interested in enhancing the data sets currently in PHLAPI.

I’m really excited about this project – source code available on GitHub – and would love to see if there is an interest in launching in other cities with CouchDB-based geospatial data repositories, like Baltimore.

It’s built on the awesome new SMSified platform from Voxeo (disclaimer, I work there) and uses a Node.js module I built for working with the SMSified API.

As always, dear readers, any comments or feedback is welcomed.

Do head on over to the project website and check it out!

Building an Open311 Application

Earlier this year, I had an idea to build a Twitter application that would allow a citizen to start a 311 service request with their city.

At the time, there was no way to build such an application as no municipality had yet adopted a 311 API that would support it (although the District of Columbia did have a 311 API in place, it did not – at the time – support the type of application I envisioned).

That changed recently, when San Francisco announced the deployment of their Open311 API. I quickly requested an API key and began trying to turn my idea into reality.

My idea resulted in an application that I soft launched last week. TweetMy311 is now live and can be used in the City/County of San Francisco to report 311 service requests. The project website has a detailed description of how it works, but its very close to my original idea.
More good news on the Open311 front came recently when it was announced that San Francisco and the District of Columbia had come to agreement on a shared Open311 standard. This means that apps built to work with the San Francisco 311 API will also work with the 311 API in Washington DC. I’m working on enabling TweetMy311 for Washington DC now, and hope to have this service live there in a few weeks.

Ultimately, I hope people use my application, that they like it, and that it makes it easier to report an issue to their municipality. I did, however, have some other motives in developing this application that I think are equally important.

Are You Experienced?

Since 311 APIs are rare, and (right now) applications that use 311 APIs are also rare, I think there is value in being able to capture the experience of developing an Open311 application from scratch. This information can provide tremendous value to the governments that deploy 311 APIs (what works, what doesn’t, what can be improved, etc.), and for developers thinking about building an Open311 application.

I hope to use TweetMy311 to provide feedback to governments that deploy 311 APIs (and to those thinking about deploying one) so that they can get a sense of how the experience works from a developer that has used one. At the end of the day the ease of use of an API, the quality of documentation, the ability to test applications in a meaningful way and a number of other factors will determine how many developers decide to take the step and become a “civic coder” by building an Open311 application.

Getting to Open

For me, the use of open source technologies in TweetMy311 was important. This project provided a great opportunities to learn more about a technology that I have become fascinated with of late – CouchDB. TweetMy311 is a NoSQL application that uses CouchDB at its core. It runs on Ubuntu Linux with Apache and was built with the PHP scripting language (I guess that makes it the CLAP stack – CouchDB, Linux, Apache, PHP)

Building with open source technologies was important because I hope to be able to share the code I have developed with interested governments that want to learn how an Open311 application is put together. I also believe it’s important because I think the Open311 initiative can be a great mechanism for encouraging the use of open source technologies.

Leading up to this project, I developed a small PHP library for interacting with the San Francisco Open311 API. I make use of this library in TweetMy311 and any other developer that wants to use it in their project is free to do so. I plan on branching this library soon so that it can work with the new version of the Open311 standard.

Give it a twhirl

So if you live in San Francisco and you want to give TweetMy311 a twhirl, check out the description on the project website. I’d appreciate any feedback – positive or negative – because ultimately I think it will make the project better.

I had a great experience developing TweetMy311, and I learned a lot. I’m looking forward to sharing my experience with interested governments and other developers.

What’s Old is New: How Citizens Communicate with Government

Social media enthusiasts (myself included) let out a big huzzah recently at the results of a study conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project entitled Government Online.

The report, like a similar one several years ago, looks at how citizens communicate and interact with their government. This study focused specifically on online contact with government, the use of social media to interact with government and citizen use of open government data.
Open Government Data and Social Media Take Hold

For social media and open government proponents, the findings are exciting:

Efforts by government agencies to post their data online are resonating with citizens. Fully 40% of online adults went online in the preceding year to access data and information about government (for instance, by looking up stimulus spending, political campaign contributions or the text of legislation).

Citizen interactions with government are moving beyond the website. Nearly one third (31%) of online adults use online platforms such as blogs, social networking sites, email, online video or text messaging to get government information.

This is great stuff. It means that efforts to open up government data sets and provide them to citizens in easily consumable formats is starting to pay off. It also means that government takeup of social media tools is providing people with more options, and more opportunities to connect with their government.

Phones Still Reign Supreme

But perhaps the most important piece of information in this report (at least in my mind) is less obvious. Tucked into the introductory section, which many people probably jump right past to get to the findings, is this little nugget of information:

As we found in our last survey of e-government in August 2003, telephone contact is the overall most preferred contact method when people have a problem, question or task involving the government. Currently, 35% of Americans say they prefer using the telephone in these circumstances, a figure that is relatively unchanged from the 38% who said so in 2003.

That’s right. Most people prefer to contact their government using the plain old telephone – more than using a website, or sending an e-mail or even going to a government office in person. The granddaddy of communication technologies still outpaces all others when it comes to citizen interaction with government. And that preference hasn’t changed during the time since the first tweet or since Facebook left the dorm room and went mainstream.

These results are impacted somewhat by the inclusion of both people who are regular online user and those who are not. Looking only at Internet users and those who access the mobile web does show a preference for online communication with government over the telephone, but not by much. And even for those who are regular Internet users with broadband connections and access to the mobile web, the ordinary telephone is still the hotness:

…it is notable that the telephone remains relatively popular even among the technologically proficient, as one-third of home broadband (32%) and wireless internet users (32%) say that the telephone is their favorite means of contact when they need to get in touch with government.

The Takeaway for Open Government and Social Media Advocates

It might be natural for those advocating for the release of more open government data (to build more open government apps) and the use of social media by government to be discouraged by these findings. But I think that citizen preference for using the telephone to contact their government presents some unique opportunities for the Gov 2.0 movement.

As I’ve said many times before, open government data and APIs make a wonderful foundation for cutting edge telephone applications. This was the philosophy behind the application I built last year that uses the Open Leg API from the NY Senate. This application is available through multiple channels, including the plain old telephone – the phone channel for this application is available in both English and Spanish.


The platforms available for building telephone applications are enormously more sophisticated than they were just a few years ago. With tools like Voxeo’s Tropo platform, its relatively easy to build sophisticated applications that serve multiple communications channels from a single code base. It’s never been easier or less expensive to build telephone applications. Ever.

The volumes of open government data and APIs that are now available make the case for building cool telephone applications that much more compelling. More open government data = more cool applications.

Additionally, as the worlds of telephony and social media converge, opportunities for what I call “cascading modality” will continue to present themselves. Take the case of Internet users discussed above who are comfortable with the mobile web. Even those people may still find the telephone a convenient way to connect with their government. These people are prime candidates for cascading modality.

Imagine a citizen out for a leisurely stroll with their dog in their neighborhood when they notice some graffiti on a sidewalk. One day soon that citizen mightwill be able to send out a short tweet to a twitter application like so:

@twitterbot #graffiti 999-555-1212

Their tweet would have their location embedded in it, and would initiate a phone call to 999-555-1212. The Twitter application would connect the citizen with a government call center and use CTI to pass on the type of incident and the location to the operator. The citizen would then talk to the operator and give other relevant details to start a service request.

At the end of the day, one of the primary justifications for open government and Gov 2.0 is to make it more efficient for people to find out about how their government works and easier to interact with government officials.

The importance of the telephone in citizen communication with government must help guide the kinds of data and APIs that governments make available to citizens and developers. Additionally, as governments continue to look at social media as a way to engage and interact with citizens, they must carefully consider how telephone communication fits into this strategy.

The ordinary telephone has been with us for over 130 years. If the findings of the latest Pew Internet report are any indication, it’s not going away any time soon.

Open Gov: A Means to and End

With all of the activity and excitement taking place around the country focused on new Government 2.0 and open government initiatives, its easy for those involved to get lost in the technology. Those of us that love technology and work with it for a living can get lost pretty quickly in the minutia of implementing an new solution.

A perfect example of this in my mind is the recently released iPhone App developed by the City of Boston for submitting municipal complaints. When asked why the city chose to develop an iPhone application, a senior advisor to the Mayor said:

“We chose the iPhone mostly because of its sex appeal – because it’s new and it’s hot.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love my iPhone and I think its exciting that state and local governments are developing applications for it, to make it easier for citizens to interact with their governments. I salute the City of Boston’s initiative in developing an application that makes it easier to submit municipal service requests. But most of the people that live in Boston don’t own iPhones. Most of the cell phone owners in Boston don’t have an iPhone either – so why choose the iPhone as a platform for a publicly funded application?

The city might have been better off developing an application that worked on more mobile devices. This could have been a web-based application that worked in the micro browsers that come with older cell phones as well as the more powerful browser software that ships with iPhones, G1 phones and other advanced mobile devices. They might have even developed a voice/DTMF interface for people (like my Mom) that use their cell phones the old fashion way. If they had, a lot more people might have been able to use the new service.

The point is that the goal of Gov 2.0 initiatives should not be the deployment of the “hottest” applications on the platforms with the most “sex appeal.” Gov 2.0 initiatives, and all of the exciting new technologies they bring to the table, are good for one thing – helping governments do their jobs more efficiently. That’s it.

As more governments jump on the Gov 2.0 bandwagon, it will be important for public officials to remain focused on the goals of their governments, their agencies and their offices – this will require an intimate understanding of the mission of government and a well developed set of metrics to help determine if Gov 2.0 technologies are helping governments more efficiently achieve their goals.

With this in mind, it was extremely gratifying to see Beth Noveck (of Wiki Government fame, who leads President Barack Obama’s open-government initiative) say the following:

Q: How will you measure the impact of these [open government] innovations?

A: Developing recommendations on transparency and open government has to include a process for developing metrics. We can talk about the number of data feeds we’ve released, or the number of people who’ve participated in rule making [but] we really have to look at transparency and participation to a specific end. So if our goal is improving the quality of American education or increasing accessibility and affordability of health care, we really have to look at those as the metrics and ask ourselves, “How does driving innovation into the way the public sector works help us to ultimately do the job better of making those hard policy decisions?”

Here’s hoping that those involved in Gov 2.0 and open government initiatives around the country take the time needed at the inception of their projects to as the questions: “What exactly are we trying to achieve here?” and “How will we measure our performance so that we know we’re making progress toward our goal?”

Or, when in doubt, ask – what would Beth Noveck do?