Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2010

Want to Improve Your City? There's an App for That

In San Francisco, you can use your smart phone to hail a cab, track a bus and pay a parking ticket. There's even an app for the most ardent of tree huggers: with SF Trees, approach any tree in the city and you can find out its type. Like nearly everything else in the Bay Area these days, the info is available on your cell.

It's not surprising that the northern terminus of Silicon Valley is leading the nation in adapting consumer technologies to improve the way citizens interact with their metro areas. Since March, San Francisco residents have been able to let city hall know about potholes, trash and graffiti problems by using mobile apps or the Web, as well as through the more traditional (and expensive) call centers. Perhaps more important, the city encouraged developers to dive into its trove of data. The results: more than 50 privately produced mobile apps, which work on gadgets such as iPhones and Android cell phones, that track everything in San Francisco from restaurant health codes to the most popular biking routes.

The idea is to use the data the city has always collected, as well as what it gathers from residents' complaints, to increase civic engagement and improve urban life. And San Francisco's leaders aren't the only ones delving into data. New York City — whose mayor, Michael Bloomberg is, after all, an information entrepreneur — has been analyzing its voluminous 311 data since the call line was launched in 2003. And seven cities — Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, New York and Washington, in addition to San Francisco — have banded together to brainstorm, with the blessing of White House appointee Vivek Kundra, whom President Obama named the nation's first chief information officer in March 2009. The first thing to emerge was the cities' promotion of the development of smart-phone apps that allow individuals access to info that until recently was warehoused at city hall. The mobile apps are also creating new data sets that could allow officials to get a better handle on how citizens use their cities and what troubles them.

The development of mobile apps is in part an effort by cities to attract and retain a desirable workforce by upping the livability quotient. It is also designed to allocate resources more efficiently at a time when money is tight. San Francisco's budget deficit, for instance, has surpassed $400 million, and many of the easy cuts have already been made. "We have to fundamentally rethink what services to provide, how to provide them and how to measure their efficacy," says Chris Vein, San Francisco's chief information officer. "Everything that we are talking about is [part of] this big experiment."

The experiment includes seeing how much of San Francisco's mobile growth can happen organically. While other cities have hired developers, San Francisco has promoted its mobile experiment mostly by opening up nearly 200 data sets, of potentially tens of thousands available, to smart-phone programmers. So far, crowdsourcing has been a more successful and less expensive approach than outsourcing. In November, the city codified its open-data efforts into law, designed to ensure that the movement doesn't stall when Mayor Gavin Newsom — who's been behind the openness push — goes to the statehouse as lieutenant governor in early 2011.

The new city apps run the gamut. Crimespotting maps point out potentially dangerous locations; EcoFinder helps you figure out what to do with your old appliances, car batteries and other unwieldy recyclables; CycleTracks plots your bike rides and sends the data to the San Francisco Transit Authority so city planners can "better understand the needs of cyclists."

Steven Peterson is a 29-year-old software geek who gave up his car and developed an iPhone app called Routesy as a side project to get the information he wanted. The app integrates real-time data from all the city's transit systems, letting riders know when a service is available so they won't have to wait on street corners in the rain. "My passion is taking things that are annoying to people and making them less irritating," Peterson says. He's now looking to expand Routesy to Boston, Washington and perhaps New York.

It's less expensive for the city to have citizens interact through their mobile phones — just as mobile banking is less expensive than the operation of bank branches, which require employees — but it also helps people feel more connected to their neighborhoods and to their city. "Once people get into 311, it's almost like Facebook — they really get into it," says Daniel Homsey, program manager of the San Francisco–run Neighborhood Empowerment Network. In the Bayview–Hunters Point area, for example, residents have become tenacious about alerting the city to illegal dumping, he says.

Critics worry that a move to mobile apps could leave behind residents who can't afford smart phones. Proponents, though, argue that the prices of these devices are declining so rapidly that it won't be long before everyone has one. In the meantime, San Francisco is making moves to bridge the digital divide for the neediest populations — for example, by getting broadband into housing projects. "It represents a different way of thinking about how government can provide services," says Jay Nath, San Francisco's director of innovation, who runs the data clearinghouse program. "It's not the model that we have to create the service and deliver it. We are opening ourselves up to the community to co-create. It represents something fundamental that is changing in government."

What might come next? Perhaps an amplifying the feedback loop that combines data from the city with data from residents, and ways of analyzing them that both make life easier and enhance revenue. Consider that San Francisco is currently installing a smart parking system. App developers like Peterson and Parkzing developer Aren Sandersen are watching closely, interested in building new apps that could notify drivers when nearby parking spots are vacant or that could pay a meter via phone. The city, meanwhile, could ultimately use data from parking patterns to raise parking rates based on demand for specific spots at specific times.

What's happening in San Francisco and other cities "is the same crowdsourcing trend that has happened elsewhere, and it's good because government can't afford to pay for all this," says Peter Hirshberg, chairman of Re:Imagine Group, which works with corporations and cities on their digital and social-media strategies. "If you make information available to people, you can create a better quality of life.