Urban Storytelling with Open Data

One of the most important qualities of open data is that it can provide unparalleled insight into how a city works.

Open data empowers urban storytelling – the process of identifying a trend, or some important characteristic of an urban area and then presenting that information in a compelling way for others.

When I speak about open data, one of the things I emphasize is that the tools for creating stories with data are becoming more powerful and widespread everyday. With the right data, it’s not hard to tell an important or compelling story about a city. To prove my point, I decided to “put my money where my mouth is” at a recent civic hacking meetup in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia.

The City of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Police Department recently released a hugely important dataset – major crime incidents occurring in the city. This data is available as both a static download (updated with the latest information each morning) or through set of APIs. I decided to use this data set, and a tool that’s been on my list to experiment with for a while – Torque, from CartoDB – to tell an urban story.

The code I wrote to tell my story is on GitHub, and you can see the data visualization I built here.

Below is a screencast of the steps I took to build this visualization – as I have said many times, the amount of effort required to build a compelling civic application (provided the right data is available) is trivial. See if you agree after watching this short video.

The technology is elegant. The visualization is cool. But the story itself is rather sad – there are way too many homicides in Philadelphia.

Our Mayor and other city leaders are working hard to change this. Just recently, Mayor Nutter articulated the frustrations of mayors from across the country who are calling for tighter restrictions on the guns that cause so many of the homicides in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

I think part of the change that Mayor Nutter and other mayors are calling for is showing people the magnitude of the problem. This is what a compelling visualization can do – it can reach someone the way that a written story or even a one-on-one conversation often can not.

The problem of violence that plagues urban areas isn’t just a challenge for our city leaders. It’s a challenge for all of us – we all need to be a part of making positive change happen. One way to reach people and motiviate them to be a part of the change is to build a compelling visualization – to tell a compelling urban story. With the right tools, almost anyone can do it.

This is the power of open data.

An SMS-Enabled Polling Locator

This is a great weekend for civic hacking.

Daylight Savings Time has given us an extra hour, advances in telephony application development have made it dead simple to build text messaging applications and Google has given us the Civic Information API.

With an election on Tuesday, I wanted to build a quick application that demonstrated the ease with which SMS apps can be built and the power of Google’s API.

The address of a polling place is both valuable and succinct – it’s the ideal kind of information to deliver through multiple communication channels. Text messaging (SMS) is a fairly ubiquitous communication channel, and in some cities – like Philadelphia – it’s an important way to engage with citizens that may face barriers to digital access.

The screencast above demonstrates how to use the script I developed using the Google Civic Information API and the Tropo telephony platform.

There are many ways to do this, and there are a large number of text messaging platforms and services to choose from, so if you want to use your extra hour this weekend to help people find their polling location pick the one you like best and get cracking.

It’s never been easier to build useful communication and messaging apps – in fact it’s getting easier every day. And with the richness of information available through APIs like Google’s Civic Information API, it’s never been easier to build an app that will help people get to their polling location.

Election day is just around the corner. Use your extra hour this weekend wisely…

From “Zero to Civic” in 5 Minutes

One of the most powerful things about open government data is all of the options it enables.

Open data is the single most important ingredient in civic apps, and it can also power visualizations, mashups and countless other civic uses. The very best open data typically lends itself to several different kinds of uses.

When paired with the increasingly sophisticated tools and APIs available to developers, building powerful and useful civic applications with open government data has never been easier.

This post is meant to provide a quick overview to using open government data to build a civic application – to demonstrate that someone with moderate coding ability, even if they’ve never built a civic application before – can go from “zero to civic” in just minutes.

The screencast below demonstrates how to take an open data set for health inspections from the City of Louisville, KY and build a simple but easy to use text messaging application using open source and free tools.

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GET /open/government/apis

Roughly three years ago, Tim O’Reilly defined a vision for “Government as a platform.”

Today, there are around 240 API’s listed on Programmable Web that identify as “government” APIs. This number is sure to climb in the weeks and months ahead, as more and more governments, public authorities and agencies deploy APIs for developers to use.

One such API, recently released as part of the relaunch of Regulations.gov, got my attention when it was highlighted by Alex Howard of O’Reilly Media.

The Regulations.gov API is part of a broader effort to use new technology and social media to engage citizens in the public rule making process.

The rise of API-based programming, and the dramatic success of REST in recent years over other kinds of API formats (i.e., SOAP), has helped spur lots of innovation and even changed the way that people build software. It’s encouraging to see efforts like the Regulations.gov relaunch try and tap into this energy and grab some developer mindshare to spur innovation.

But if governments are going to attract developers with APIs, then it makes sense to look at government APIs and evaluate them against other, more commonly used APIs to see how they stack up. People respond to incentives, and developers are no different – if an API is well documented and easy to use, developers are more likely to give it a try. The more “friction” an API has, the less likely it is to attract developers.

How does the new Regulations.gov API measure up? I decided to take a few hours to give it a test and find out. Here’s what I found.

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