Tag Archives: cities

Announcing the 311 Data Challenge, soon to be launched on Kaggle

The Kaggle – SeeClickFix – Eaves.ca 311 Data Challenge. Coming Soon.

I’m pleased to share that, in conjunction with SeeClickFix and Kaggle I’ll be sponsoring a predictive data competition using 311 data from four different cities. My hope is that – if we can demonstrate that there are some predictive and socially valuable insights to be gained from this data – we might be able to persuade cities to try to work together to share data insights and help everyone become more efficient, address social inequities and address other city problems 311 data might enable us to explore.

Here’s the backstory and some details in anticipation of the formal launch:

The Story

Several months back Anthony Goldbloom, the founder and CEO of Kaggle – a predictive data competition firm – approached me asking if I could think of something interesting that could be done in the municipal space around open data. Anthony generously offered to waive all of Kaggle’s normal fees if I could come up with a compelling contest.

After playing around with some ideas I reached out to Ben Berkowitz, co-founder of SeeClickFix (one of the world’s largest implementers of the Open311 standard) and asked him if we could persuade some of the cities they work for to share their data for a competition.

Thanks to the hard work of Will Cukierski at Kaggle as well as the team at SeeClickFix we were ultimately able to generate a consistent data set with 300,000 lines of data involving 311 issues spanning 4 cities across the United States.

In addition, while we hoped many of who might choose to participate in a municipal open data challenge would do so out curiosity or desire to better understand how cities work, both myself and SeeClickFix agreed to collectively put up $5000 in prize money to help raise awareness about the competition and hopefully stoke some media (as well as broader participant) interest.

The Goal

The goal of the competition will be to predict the number of votes, comments and views an issue is likely to generate. To be clear, this is not a prediction that is going to radically alter how cities work, but it could be a genuinely useful to communications departments, helping them predict problems that are particularly thorny or worthy proactively communicating to residents about. In addition – and this remains unclear – my own hope is that it could help us understand discrepancies in how different socio-economic or other groups use online 311 and so enable city officials to more effectively respond to complaints from marginalized communities.

In addition there will be a smaller competition around visualization the data.

The Bigger Goal

There is, however, for me, a potentially bigger goal. To date, as far as I know, predictive algorithms of 311 data have only ever been attempted within a city, not across cities. At a minimum it has not been attempted in a way in which the results are public and become a public asset.

So while the specific problem  this contest addresses is relatively humble, I’d see it as a creating a larger opportunity for academics, researchers, data scientists, and curious participants to figure out if can we develop predictive algorithms that work for multiple cities. Because if we can, then these algorithms could be a shared common asset. Each algorithm would become a tool for not just one housing non-profit, or city program but a tool for all sufficiently similar non-profits or city programs. This could be exceptionally promising – as well as potentially reveal new behavioral or incentive risks that would need to be thought about.

Of course, discovering that every city is unique and that work is not easily transferable, or that predictive models cluster by city size, or by weather, or by some other variable is also valuable, as this would help us understand what types of investments can be made in civic analytics and what the limits of a potential commons might be.

So be sure to keep an eye on the Kaggle page (I’ll link to it) as this contest will be launching soon.

The South -> North Innovation Path in Government: An Example?

I’ve always felt that a lot of innovation happens where resources are scarcest. Scarcity forces us to think differently, to be efficient and to question traditional (more expensive) models.

This is why I’m always interested to see how local governments in developing economies are handling various problems. There is always an (enormous) risk that these governments will be lured into doing things they way they have been done in developing economies (hello SAP!). Sometimes this makes sense, but often, newer, disruptive and cheaper ways of accomplishing the goal have emerged in the interim.

What I think is really interesting is when a trend started in the global south migrates to the global north. I think I may have just spotted one example.

The other week the City of Boston announced its City Hall to Go trucks – mobile vans that, like food trucks, will drive around the city and be at various civic events available to deliver citizen services on the go! See the video and “menu” below.

 

city-hall-menu-225x300

This is really cool. In Vancouver we have a huge number of highly successful food carts. It is not hard to imagine an experiment like this as well – particularly in underserved neighborhoods or at the numerous public festivals and public food markets that take place across the city.

But, as the title of this post suggests, Boston is not the first city to do this. This United Nations report points out how the state government of Bahia started to do something similar in the mid 90s in the state capital of Salvador.

In 1994 the Government of Bahia hosted the first of several annual technology fairs in the state capital, Salvador. A few government services were offered there, using new ICT systems (e.g., issuing identification cards). The service was far more efficient and well-received by the public. The idea was then raised: Why not deliver services this way on a regular basis?

…A Mobile Documents SAC also was developed to reach the most remote and deprived communities in Bahia. This Mobile SAC is a large, 18-wheel truck equipped with air-conditioning, TV set, toilets, and a covered waiting area. Inside the truck, four basic citizenship services are provided: issuance of birth certificates, identification card, labor identification card, and criminal record verification.

I feel very much like I’ve read about smaller trucks delivering services in other cities in Brazil as well – I believe one community in Brazil had mobile carts with computers on them that toured neighborhoods so citizens could more effectively participate in online petitions and crowdsourcing projects being run by the local government.

I’m not sure if the success of these projects in developing economy cities influenced the thinking in Boston – if yes, that is interesting. If not, it is still interesting. It suggests that thinking and logic behind this type innovation is occurring in several cities simultaneously, even if when these cities have markedly different levels of GDP per capita and internet access (among many other things). My hope is that those in government will be more and more willing to see how their counterparts elsewhere in the world – no matter where – are doing things. Money is tight for governments everywhere, so good ideas may be more likely to go from those who feel the burden of costs the greatest.

Re-Architecting the City by Changing the Timelines and Making it Disappear

A couple of weeks ago I was asked by one of the city’s near where I live to sit on an advisory board around the creation of their Digital Government strategy. For me the meeting was good since I felt that a cohort of us on the advisory board were really pushing the city into a place of discomfort (something you want an advisory board to do in certain ways). My sense is a big part of that conversation had to do with a subtle gap between the city staff and some of the participants around what a digital strategy should deal with.

Gord Ross (of Open Roads) – a friend and very smart guy – and I were debriefing afterwards about where and why the friction was arising.

We had been pushing the city hard on its need to iterate more and use data to drive decisions. This was echoed by some of the more internet oriented members of the board. But at one point I feel like I got healthy push back from one of the city staff. How, they asked, can I iterate when I’ve got 10-60 years timelines that I need to plan around? I simply cannot iterate when some of the investments I’m making are that longterm.

Gord raised Stewart Brands building layers as a metaphor which I think sums up the differing views nicely.

Brand presents his basic argument in an early chapter, “Shearing Layers,” which argues that any building is actually a hierarchy of pieces, each of which inherently changes at different rates. In his business-consulting manner, he calls these the “Six S’s” (borrowed in part from British architect and historian F. Duffy’s “Four S’s” of capital investment in buildings).

The Site is eternal; the Structure is good for 30 to 300 years (“but few buildings make it past 60, for other reasons”); the Skin now changes every 15 to 20 years due to both weathering and fashion; the Services (wiring, plumbing, kitchen appliances, heating and cooling) change every seven to 15 years, perhaps faster in more technological settings; Space Planning, the interior partitioning and pedestrian flow, changes every two or three years in offices and lasts perhaps 30 years in the most stable homes; and the innermost layers of Stuff (furnishings) change continually.

My sense is the city staff are trying to figure out what the structure, skin and services layers should be for a digital plan, whereas a lot of us in the internet/tech world live occasionally in the services layer but most in the the space planning and stuff layers where the time horizons are WAY shorter. It’s not that we have to think that way, it is just that we have become accustomed to thinking that way… doubly so since so much of what works on the internet isn’t really “planned” it is emergent. As a result, I found this metaphor useful for trying to understanding how we can end up talking past one another.
It also goes to the heart of what I was trying to convey to the staff: that I think there are a number of assumptions governments make about what has been a 10 or 50 year lifecycle versus what that lifecycle could be in the future.
In other words, a digital strategy could allow some things “phase change” from being say in the skin or service layer to being able to operate on the faster timeline, lower capital cost and increased flexibility of a space planning layer. This could have big implications on how the city works. If you are buying software or hardware on the expectation that you will only have to do it every 15 years your design parameters and expectations will be very different than if it is designed for 5 years. It also has big implications for the systems that you connect to or build around that software. If you accept that the software will constantly be changing, easy integration becomes a necessary feature. If you think you will have things for decades than, to a certain degree, stability and rigidity are a byproduct.
This is why, if the choice is between trying to better predict how to place a 30 year bet (e.g. architect something to be in the skin or services layer) or place a 5 year bet (architect it to be in the space planning or stuff layer) put as much of it in the latter as possible. If you re-read my post on the US government’s Digital Government strategy, this is functionally what I think they are trying to do. By unbundling the data from the application they are trying to push the data up to the services layer of the metaphor, while pushing the applications built upon it down to the space planning and stuff layer.
This is not to say that nothing should be long term, or that everything long term is bad. I hope not to convey this. Rather, that by being strategic about what we place where we can foster really effective platforms (services) that can last for decades (think data) while giving ourselves a lot more flexibility around what gets built around them (think applications, programs, etc…).
The Goal
The reason why you want to do all this, is because you actually want to give the city the flexibility to a) compete in a global marketplace and b) make itself invisible to its citizens. I hinted at this goal the other day at the end of my piece in TechPresident on the UK’s digital government strategy.
On the competitive front I suspect that across Asia and Africa about 200 cities, and maybe a lot more, are going to get brand new infrastructure over the coming 100 years. Heck some of these cities are even being built from scratch. If you want your city to compete in that environment, you’d better be able to offer new and constantly improving services in order to keep up. If not, others may create efficiencies and discover improvements that given them structural advantages in the competition for talent and other resources.
But the other reason is that this kind of flexibility is, I think, critical to making (what Gord now has me referring to as the big “C” city) disappear. I like my government services best when they blend into my environment. If you live a privilidged Western World existence… how often do you think about electricity? Only when you flick the switch and it doesn’t work. That’s how I suspect most people want government to work. Seamless, reliable, designed into their lives, but not in the way of their lives. But more importantly, I want the “City” to be invisible so that it doesn’t get in the way of my ability to enjoy, contribute to, and be part of the (lower case) city – the city that we all belong to. The “city” as that messy, idea swapping, cosmopolitan, wealth and energy generating, problematic space that is the organism humans create where ever the gather in large numbers. I’d rather be writing the blog post on a WordPress installation that does a lot of things well but invisibly, rather than monkeying around with scripts, plugins or some crazy server language I don’t want to know. Likewise, the less time I spend on “the City,” and the more seamlessly it works, the more time I spend focused on “the city” doing the things that make life more interesting and hopefully better for myself and the world.
Sorry for the rambling post. But digesting a lot of thoughts. Hope there were some tasty pieces in that for you. Also, opaque blog post title eh? Okay bed time now.

Adapting KUALI financials for cities: Marin County is looking for Partners

Readers of my blog will be familiar Kuali – the coalition of universities that co-create a suite software  core to their operations – as I’ve blogged about several times and argued that it is a powerful model for local governments interested in rethinking how they procure (or really, co-create) their software.

For some time now I’ve heard rumors that some local governments have been playing with Kuali’s software to see if they can adapt it to work for their needs. Yesterday, David Hill of Marin County posted the comment below to a blog post I’d written about Kuali in which he openly states that he is looking for other municipalities to partner with as they try to fork Kuali financials and adapt it to local government.

<dhill@marincounty.org> (unregistered) wrote:

I completely agree.  It is a radical change for government in at least four ways:

1)  Government developers (are there any?) have little experience with open source
2)  CIOs have no inherent motivation to leave the commercial market model
3)  Governments have little experience is sharing
4)  CIOs are losing their staff due to budget cuts, and have no excess resources to take on a project that appears risky

But, let’s not waste a crisis.  Now is the best time to get KUALI financials certified for government finance and accounting and into production.

Please contact me if you are  planning to upgrade or replace your financial system and would like to look at KFS.
Randy Ozden,  VivanTech CEO is a great commercial partner
David Hill,
CIO
County of Marin

David’s offer is an exciting opportunity and I definitely encourage any municipal and county government officials interested in finding a cheap alternative to their financial management software to reach out to David Hill and at least explore this option. (or if you know any local government officials, please forward this to them). I would love nothing more to see some Kuali style projects start to emerge at the local level.

Calgary Launches Business Plan and Budget App

So this is interesting. The City of Calgary has launched a Business Plan & Budget app for free from iTunes.

It’s a smart move as it creates an easy, “one button” option for citizens to participate in and learn about the city’s financial planning process. You can read (a tiny bit) more at the City of Calgary’s blog.

Looking more closely at the app, it doesn’t offer a huge amount but don’t dismiss it too quickly. Consolidating all the information into a single place and making it available to people on the go is a great starting point. Secondly, it is worth remembering that this is just a starting point – there is obviously lots to be learned about how to engage citizens online – especially using mobile technology. If this is done right, Calgary will be learning these lessons first, which means their 2nd and 3rd generation versions of the app and the process will be more sophisticated while others are left catching up (think of Apple and the iPad).

So while the app is fairly light on features today… I can imagine a future where it becomes significantly more engaging and comprehensive, using open data on the data and city services to show maps of where and how money is spent, as well as post reminders for in person meet ups, tours of facilities, and dial in townhall meetings. The best way to get to these more advanced features is to experiment with getting the lighter features right today. The challenge for Calgary on this front is that it seems to have no plans for sharing much data with the public (that I’ve heard of), it’s open data portal has few offerings and its design is sorely lacking. Ultimately, if you want to consult citizens on planning and the budget it might be nice to go beyond surveys and share more raw data and information with them, it’s a piece of the puzzle I think will be essential. This is something no city seems to be tackling with any gusto and, along with crime data, is emerging as a serious litmus test of a city’s intention to be transparent.

The possibilities that Calgary’s consultation app presents are exciting – and again it is early days – so it will be interesting if developers in Calgary and elsewhere can begin to figuring out how to easily extend and enhance this type of approach. Moreover, it’s nice to see a city venturing out and experimenting with this technology, I hope other cities will not just watch, but start experiments of their own, it’s the best way to learn.

 

Launching an Open Data Business: Recollect.net (Vantrash 2.0)

Have you ever forgotten to take the garbage or recycling out? Wouldn’t it be nice if someone sent you a reminder the night before, or the morning of? Maybe an email, or an SMS, or even a phone call?

Now you can set it up so somebody does. Us.

Introducing Recollect: the garbage and recycling collection reminder service.

For People

We’ve got the garbage schedules for a number of Canadian cities big and small (with American ones coming soon) – test our site out to see if we support yours.

You can set up a reminder for the night before – or the day of – your garbage pickup, and we’ll email, text or call you letting you know your garbage day is imminent and what will be picked up (say, recycling, yard waste or garbage). Our email and Twitter reminders are free, and text message and phone calls cost $1.50 a month.

If you think you, your sibling, friends, or your parents might like a service like this, please come check out our website.

It’s simple and we hope you’ll give it a whirl.

For Cities

We don’t think that Recollect is going to change the world, but we do think we can help better manage citizens’ expectations around customer service. For cities (and companies) interested in connecting with their citizens and customers, we have have a number of partnering options we have already started to explore with some cities.

More importantly, if you’d like to see Recollect come to your city, have your garbage schedule and zones available for download – like Edmonton and Vancouver.

On either of these fronts, if you are a politician, city employee or a business owner who needs a reminder service of some kind, please contact us.

Background – an open data municipal business

In June of 2009, as Vancouver was preparing to launch its open data portal I wrote a blog post called How Open Data even makes Garbage collection sexier, easier and cheaper in which I talked about how, using city data, a developer could create a garbage pickup reminder service for Vancouverites. Tim Bray called it his Hello World moment for Open Data. More importantly, Luke Closs and Kevin Jones, two Vancouver programers (and now good friends) took the idea and made it real. The program was called Vantrash, and in two quiet, low-maintenance years – with no advertising or marketing – it garnered over 3000 users.

Last week we retired Vantrash. Today, we launched Recollect.

Yes, Recollect is more beautiful than its predecessor, but more importantly it is going to start serving your community. At a high level, we want to see if we can scale an open data business to a continental level. Can we use open data to serve a range of cities across North America?

At a practical level, the goal of Recollect is more basic: To help make citizens’ lives just a little bit easier by providing them customized reminders for services they use, to the device of their choice, at the time of their choice.

Let’s face it: We are all too busy being parents, holding down jobs or enjoying the limited free time we have to remember things like garbage day or little league schedules. Our job is to make your life easier by finding ways to free our minds of wasting time remembering these small details. If you aren’t trying to remember to take out the garbage, hopefully it means you can spend a little more time thinking about your family, your work or whatever your passion may be.

In short, we believe that city services should be built around your life – and we are trying to take a small step to bring that a little closer to reality.

Again, we don’t expect Recollect to change the world. But we do hope that it will serve as a building block for rethinking the government-user experience that will lay the foundations so that others will be able to change the world.

What I’m doing at Code for America

For the last two weeks – and for much of January – I’m in San Francisco helping out with Code for America. What’s Code for America? Think Teach for America, but rather than deploying people into classrooms to help provide positive experiences for students and teachers while attempting to shift the culture of school districts, Code for America has fellows work with cities to help develop reusable code to save cities money, make local government as accessible as your favorite website, and help shift the government’s culture around technology.

code-for-america1-150x112The whole affair is powered by a group of 20 amazing fellows and an equally awesome staff that has been working for months to make it all come together. My role – in comparison – is relatively minor, I head up the Code for America Institute – a month long educational program the fellows go through when they first arrive.  I wanted to write about what I’ve been trying to do both because of the openness ideals of Code for America and to share any lessons for others who might attempt a similar effort.

First, to understand what I’m doing, you have to understand the goal. On the surface, to an outsider, the Code for America change process might look something like this:

  1. Get together some crazy talented computer programers (hackers, if you want to make the government folks nervous)
  2. Unleash them on a partner city with a specific need
  3. Take resulting output and share across cities

Which of course, would mistakenly frame the problem as technical. However, Code for America is not about technology. It’s about culture change. The goal is about rethinking and reimagining  government as better, faster, cheaper and adaptive. It’s about helping think of the ways its culture can embrace government as a platform, as open and as highly responsive.

I’m helping (I think) because I’ve enjoyed some success in getting government’s to think differently. I’m not a computer developer and at their core, these successes were never technology problems. The challenge is understanding how the system works, identify the leverage points for making change, develop partners and collaborate to engage those leverage points, and do whatever it takes to ensure it all comes together.

So this is the message and the concept the speakers are trying to impart on the fellows. Or, in other words, my job is to help unleash the already vibrant change agents within the 20 awesome fellows and make them effective in the government context.

So what have we done so far?

We’ve focused on three areas:

1) Understand Government: Some of the fellows are new to government, so we’ve had presentations from local government experts like Jay Nath, Ed Reiskin and Peter Koht as well as the Mayor of Tuscon’s chief of staff (to give a political perspective). And of course, Tim O’Reilly has spoken about how he thinks government must evolve in the 21st century. The goal: understand the system as well as, understand and respect the actors within that system.

2) Initiate & Influence: Whether it is launching you own business (Eric Ries on startups), starting a project (Luke Closs on Vantrash) or understanding what happens when two cultures come together (Caterina Fake on Yahoo buying Flickr) or myself on negotiating, influence and collaboration, our main challenges will not be technical, they will be systems based and social. If we are to build projects and systems that are successful and sustainable we need to ask the right questions and engage with these systems respectfully as we try to shift them.

3) Plan & Focus: Finally, we’ve had experts in planning and organizing. People like Allen Gunn (Gunner) and the folks from Cooper Design, who’ve helped the fellows think about what they want, where they are going, and what they want to achieve. Know thyself, be prepared, have a plan.

The last two weeks will continue to pick up these themes but also give the fellows more time to (a) prepare for the work they will be doing with their partner cities; and (b) give them more opportunities to learn from one another. We’re half way through the institute at this point and I’m hoping the experience has been a rich – if sometimes overwhelming – one. Hopefully I’ll have an update again at the end of the month.