An App A Day

New York City announces the winners of a competition to use city data to create apps. Some call it a positive step toward transparency, but others think the data is not nearly open enough.

The creators of the app BookZee with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. fguillen

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On February 4, New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the winners of NYC BigApps, a competition for software developers using municipal data. With BigApps, New York follows the lead of Washington, D.C. in publicizing its government-2.0 initiatives with a splashy software competition.

“The more people see the data, the more people can find ways to do things with it, things that we never counted on before,” Mayor Bloomberg said at last Thursday’s ceremony, held at Frank Gehry’s IAC building in Chelsea.

First place for Best Overall Application went to WayFinder NYC, an application for Android phones that displays subway directions over live images from the phone’s camera. The first-place winners receive $5,000 and lunch with the Mayor. The second-place finisher, Taxihack, used taxi registry data to let cab riders publicly report bad (or good) driving. The winners were chosen from among 85 eligible submissions.

Like Washington, D.C.’s Apps for Democracy contest in 2008, BigApps highlights the city’s efforts to increase the transparency and accessibility of government data. “This administration has been about data transparency for many years,” said Carole Post, commissioner of the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications.

To be eligible for the competition, each entrant had to draw on at least one of the 170 sets of municipal data that DoITT assembled into a “data mine” following Mayor Bloomberg’s announcement of the competition last June. The data sets included information that ranged from restaurant health inspections to fire and medical response times to the locations of free wifi hotspots.

Seth Pinsky, president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, said that in addition to opening up civic data, the competition was designed to “increase the number and success of our startup businesses.”

One such startup is Onederr, developers of NYC Way, a bundle of iPhone apps that placed first in the Investors Choice and Popular Choice categories of the competition. According to Puneet Mehta, who founded Onederr with three friends, BigApps provided the necessary push to realize an idea they had been kicking around for some time. Onederr saw the publicity associated with the competition “as an opportunity to give our product a jumpstart,” Mehta said. Thanks to that jumpstart, NYC Way attracted 75,000 users even before the winners were announced, according to Mehta. Made up of over 30 apps — from traffic cams to a coffee shop finder — NYC Way combines an impressive number of the municipal data sets, along with information from the web and original research, including some intrepid scouting of street vendor locations. “We literally didn’t sleep for almost 40 days,” Mehta said.

Because the apps are available to users for free, businesses that submitted software to the contest have received publicity, not revenue, as a result of BigApps. “Our dream is for people not to just look and care but to pay us for it,” said Adda Birnir, one of the developers of Big Apple Ed, a school search app that placed third in the Best Overall Application category. “We recognize that sometimes you have to do the work to get more work.”

On the other side of the equation, BigApps produced useful applications with government data at no charge to the city beyond the cost of the competition itself. Brandon Kessler, founder of ChallengePost, the organization that designed the competition with City Hall, estimated that BigApps produced $4 million worth of “innovation,” since each of the 85 submissions would have cost the city about $50,000 to develop.

While transparency advocates give the Bloomberg administration credit for making city data available and drawing attention to government 2.0 initiatives, they say much more could be done. In particular, some developers were critical of the way DoITT hand-picked which data sets to make public. In addition to the 170 data sets available for the competition, “there are thousands of more data sets that people were interested in that are not available,” said Phil Ashlock of the Open Planning Project.

The types of data on offer were also limited, according to Ashlock. The data mine mostly provided information on city services and transportation rather than data that’s of more interest to government watchdog groups, such as information on legislative votes or elections. “There hasn’t been as much attention to some of the accountability data,” said Ashlock. “A lot of the cities that have these app contests have policies or laws in place that require access to all the data,” he added.

One such legislative effort in New York City, sponsored by city council member Gale Brewer, would make much of the city government’s data available automatically. “I want there to be rules on the books that run these kinds of things. I don’t want it to be up to the administration,” said Kunal Malhotra, legislative and budget director for councilwoman Brewer. Bloomberg administration officials testified against the bill, Intro. 991, when it came up before the council in June, arguing that BigApps would provide a better framework for making data public.

“The administration’s reaction to our bill getting introduced was, ‘Lets have this competition,’” Malhotra said. He added that while the centralized data mine was launched for BigApps, the data itself had been available in various forms on the web already.

The awards were announced two days before the New York Times reported on a new study that questions the integrity of the city’s lauded crime statistics program, CompStat. Data on crime incidence was not part of the BigApps data mine; apps dealing with crime got data from other sources, like direct feeds from the NYPD.

“The more we move toward situations where data is handed out and not scrubbed but just handed out, the better,” Malhotra said. “That’s what the situation with CompStat indicates.”

Councilwoman Brewer’s bill is currently being rewritten. For now, DoITT Commissioner Post says the bill’s “concept is more expansive than is realistic.”

Commissioner Post and the Economic Development Corporation’s Pinsky said the administration plans to continue to make new data sets available and to repeat the competition annually. “I think that the message is that the data should be available unless there is a compelling reason for it not to be,” Commissioner Post said.

Despite the administration’s incremental approach to opening up data, the Mayor’s insistence that government information belongs to the people of New York is a positive sign for transparency advocates. “Once you start, it’s very hard to stop,” Ashlock said of open data initiatives like Bloomberg’s. “Citizens demand more information.”

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Tags: new york citygovernanceappsmichael bloomberg

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