Eight cities, one interface; Collaborating to open data on municipal services

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Eight cities, one interface; Collaborating to open data on municipal services


In the "information age" many cities are busily occupied in opening the information on their municipal services and making it available to third parties with a commercial motivation (generating products and value-added services), civic (allowing access to citizens) or both. Few do it hand to hand and persistently with programmers and developers. And even less so by sharing experiences, progress, models and technology with other cities during the process. We know one of these cases, what has worked and what has not.

CitySDK is a European consortium of 23 partner organizations in nine countries that help municipalities open their data to citizens taking part in the technical phase: providing software developers with the tools they need to create applications that are scalable from one city to another. The cities of Amsterdam, Barcelona, ​​Helsinki, Istanbul, Lamia (Greece), Lisbon, Manchester and Rome participated in this two-and-a-half-year collaborative program, which began in January 2012 and is now nearing completion. Three organizations that are experts in urban community development such as Forum Virium Helsinki (program leader), FutureEverything and Waag Society have a leading role. A group of technology firms (Alfamicro, Gnosis Computers, ISA- Intelligent Sensing Anywhere and others), five academic research centers, including ESADE in Spain, and an urban innovation network like the European Network of Living Labs have also been engaged.

With governments throughout the continent searching and learning by trial and error how to open their data for the benefit of users of public services and encourage their own economic activity, the CitySDK method consists of streamlining the reuse of developments carried out.

Give me a fulcrum, and I shall move…

The Development Toolkit for City Services is your toolbox. It is a set of development properties and applications for digital services designed for cities. With service interfaces that are open and interoperable between each other (same processes, same usage guidelines, same usability standards), programmers and whole communities of developers can more effectively apply their skills to the service of municipal development. To create this kit, the consortium has boasted the collaboration of Code for Europe, one of the poles of civic programming that tries to replicate the success of its American counterpart, the powerful Code for America, based in San Francisco.

The total budget of CitySDK amounts to 6.8 million euros, 3.4 of which are from European Union funds (EU ICT Policy Support Programme). This money has been invested in setting up three work lines (Smart Participation, Smart Mobility and Smart Tourism), and put them into practice with three pilot projects: participation in Helsinki, mobility in Amsterdam and Tourism in Lisbon. Once tested, a pan-European community of developers already experienced in their local node replicates them in other cities. And to do so, holding hackathones, app contests, programming challenges and meetups is encouraged.    

The apps that use the Helsinki participation API, follow the ‘fix the city’ model, and are based on Open311.org, a system from the New York company OpenPlans that facilitates interaction between citizens and their municipality. Thus, Korjaa Kaupunfi ("fix the city") and Metro Fiksaa move each suggestion or complaint directly to a municipal public manager. The  Smart Mobility line leads to Amsterdam, where an API gathers from multiple sources and transmits real-time information on the traffic situation and public transport. Using geolocation, each user can help others with advice via a cell phone (waiting times, congestion), like a "personal travel assistant ". Meanwhile, in Lisbon (Smart Tourism pilot node) a marketplace of very simple applications for the web and cell phone has been created based on open data.

Finally, from Manchester, particularly from its city council, target audiences, institutions and companies that may be interested in using these tools are identified. Contact between municipal managers and developers is a priority, and it is never close enough to achieve profound changes in the way that cities and programmers relate. Open data is the cornerstone. Open source code, APIs, the SCRUM methodology they follow… everything would have been technically impossible to do just five years ago.

Opening higher-quality and higher-demanded data

With a track record of over two years, it is also time to translate this international relationship between cities and programmers into measurable progress as well as business, research and innovation. Among the main barriers to innovation that this report, mentions, it points to "hesitation, sometimes inability, of public employees and administrations to open high-quality data that is in high demand" such as those on real-time traffic. It is one of the most frequent complaints of data reusers just about everywhere. If you don't open sets of valuable data, don't expect anyone to create anything with them that will add minimal value. Instead, a municipal manager can ask citizens beforehand what tools they miss and developers what data they need to create them.

It also indicates that municipalities "call results too fast" when it is obvious that establishing an ecosystem for innovation requires investing money, time and creating many relationships. The CitySDK consortium did not have a previous model to commercially exploit the APIs, so it is now the members themselves who are already trying to climb in the form of start-up or different technological entrepreneurship projects. Still everything to do. In terms of innovation and technological standardization, the fruits of so much work are open to anyone who wants to use them, so CitySDK leaves a coded repository that is reusable in the form of applications and a deep understanding among them of more than 20 actors that, it is expected, bears fruit in new projects and future collaborations.

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