City CIOs See Inspiration for Civic Hackers in New Federal Portal for City Data
BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Friday, August 3 2012
If you're one of those people who have persistent nightmares about big New York City-sized cockroaches running around restaurant kitchens, the city's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications has an app for you: "ABCEats."
The smartphone app enables users to filter searches through the city's 24,000 restaurants by the grades they've been assigned for food handling and safety by the city's Health Department.
With the launch of a new U.S. City Data Portal housed online by the federal government, a group of the nation's largest city chief information officers are hoping that some day developers will take the records New York City keeps on restaurants and combine it with other cities' comparable data to create new applications that could be of use to both the public and people in government.
"What we started realizing is that people are more attracted to building apps and things like that when there's a multi-city kind of dimension to it, where you can build one, and it could be built for various cities," said Girish Chhugani, a senior advisor at DOITT's Department of Strategic Technology Development. "It's probably being done now, but when you start putting data together in one place, you get more visibility around those things, and we're hoping that it will become a better ecosystem for developers to build better apps, and apps that are more usable."
The portal currently links to datasets from Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Seattle. The CIOs of those cities hope that it will inspire other cities to open up the troves of information that they generate to the public, as well as spark off more creative ideas for app development.
"It makes it easier for developers, researchers, and cities themselves to look at how cities are functioning across multiple metros," Chicago's Chief Technology Officer John Tolva said via e-mail. "How is Chicago doing with potholes vs. SF, for example? Or, I'm an developer creating a transit app for multiple cities and it is just easier to hook into a single API rather than multiple."
Tolva points to the portal as a resource for developers in the Google Places API Challenge for example, which launched Wednesday. (Google launched a challenge for developers Wednesday to develop cool new city apps using its Google Places API.)
Another goal that the CIOs think the portal could help with is standardizing the way cities report information.
"It is the first step towards coming to agreement on data standards across cities," he said. "For instance, cities each rate food establishments in slightly different ways. Having a common platform is a good incentive to work towards creating these common standards, which makes the comparisons in point one more useful."
New York's Chhugani admits that that process could be a long one, and in some cases impossible, because moving to new data standards could in some cases involve changing the way whole city departments operate and report their information. Every city has its own way of tracking complaints about potholes, for example, he said. The challenge is to see how every city can match the way the information is presented so that it can be compared and used in meaningful ways.
The new portal is the fruition of informal talks between the office of the Deputy United States Chief Technology Officer Chris Vein and seven city CIOs, who first started talking about the idea last year. The project finally launched this week after the CIOs managed to get through the red tape at the Office of Management and Budget, Chhugani said.