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BigApps knows where alternate-side is in effect

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, December 16 2009

At least parking might get a little easier.

A first look at the contestants in New York City's BigApps contest — in which $20,000 in prize money is up for grabs to the developer or developers who make the best use of a data dump the city made several months ago — shows some interesting stuff, but a lot of fluff, too. Judging began today, and you can go to the contest's website to vote. There'll be two popular-choice winners, according to the site.

Remember the New York Times' neighborhood-by-neighborhood map of the results from the 2009 mayoral election? There's an app allowing you to do that for any recent big election in New York City, except, curiously, the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. (That is a fun map to make.)

Another app, one of a gaggle devoted to city parking and its discontents, is supposed to help you find broken parking meters. In New York City, finding a broken meter is like finding a five-dollar bill on the street. When a meter is broken, a little LED beams "FAIL" at you — meaning the city had failed to force you to pay for curbside parking.

Among the apps that look to be the most potentially useful are at least a half a dozen that make use of the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's restaurant inspection data. Another app, ComePlayNow, wants to help you find an athletic field, and sets the framework for a social network of urban athletes. A third will show you which library has the book you want, while you're on the go.

Some of these apps have flaws. The city Department of Health data refer to scores given to a restaurant by an inspector at the time of inspection, but are subject to change if violations are dismissed in later hearings before an administrative law judge. The data from a new inspection or adjudication can take a while to get from the inspector or the hearing to the Internet — so when consuming the information in those apps, use a liberal dose of salt.

As a rugby player, I was expecting the parks app, ComePlayNow, to direct me to Randall's Island or East River Park when I passed it "rugby in Manhattan." It suggested I try a playground in Harlem instead. (The app's "about" page cautions that its creators are still working out some bugs.)

There are a lot of apps that allow you to make maps of the city, but the city's Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications — which gleefully embraces the abbreviation DOITT — has already published a pretty good one.

But that's the cream. Many of these apps are trying to make the most out of data that is largely useless to the average New Yorker, or data that is inherently flawed, and it shows.

There is, for example, a map offering a detailed list of emergency call box locations. In order to take advantage of a mobile application helping you to find a call box, you have to be holding a device that is itself an emergency call box. The usefulness of this information is questionable at best.

The city released a database of building permits, but no Department of Buildings violations; recycling diversion and capture rates, by community district; and everything you need for a map of police precincts, but no actual data from the NYPD. The police release crime data by precinct every week — but the data are released in PDF documents.

The BigApps contest received 85 valid entries, according to its website, and many of them promise to be interesting and creative uses of public data. The public has until Jan. 7 to pick favorites, and winners will be announced sometime in January.