Five Cities That Got Civic Apps Before San Francisco (Sorry, Gavin)

Gavin NewsomThis morning, San Francisco mayor (and 2010 gubernatorial candidate) Gavin Newsom announced the launch of DataSF.org, a Web site that will serve as a hub for the mountains of data streaming out of San Francisco's government agencies. "The new Web site will provide a clearinghouse of structured, raw and machine-readable government data to the public in an easily downloadable format," Newsom wrote in a post on TechCrunch. "Machine-readable" is the operative word; that means program-mashable datasets, and that means apps.

While it's good to see San Francisco, with its Silicon Valley ties and hundreds of tech companies, innovating its way toward better governance, the city is not the first to do so. At least six other cities and agencies around the country are embracing technology, especially mobile technology, to move toward more transparent, more responsive administration. Along with San Francisco, below are five more cities that are changing the way citizens and cities interact, one mobile app at a time:

1. In June, mayor Michael Bloomberg initiated the Big Apps contest in New York City, a competition heaping cash rewards on developers that create apps utilizing the data coming out of NYC's various offices and agencies. Working through the ".nyc" domain—a city data hub much like DataSF.org—Bloomberg has encouraged developers to create apps that do everything from providing subway maintenance updates to archiving the detailed report cards NYC's health department keeps for all city restaurants.

2. Portland's TriMet opened its data to app developers way back in 2005. Since that day, some 30-plus apps have been developed. Some do simple tasks like adapt bus schedules read easier on the iPhone. But others are more complex, tracking your bus as you wait, and texting you the time you will actually arrive at your destination. One app even sets off your phone's alarm a few minutes before you reach your stop in case you want to catch a quick nap while bussing across town.

iphone apps3. Boston's Citizen Connect takes advantage of all the tech smartphones have to offer. Replacing the city's oft-ignored complaint hotline, the app allows users to use smartphone cameras to snap photos of offending incidents—fallen tree limbs, unfilled potholes, garbage strewn alleys—and then use the phone's GPS function to geo-tag the photo so city authorities can find and fix the problem. Complaints can quickly be forwarded to city workers on the move, speeding response times and making city agencies more efficient. When no one is placed on hold, everybody wins.

4. Stuck in Texas Longhorns game day traffic on southbound I-35? There's an app for that. The City of Austin and the Texas Department of Transportation feed incident and traffic camera data to the aptly named Austin Traffic app, keeping iPhone users in the loop (or off of Loop 1) when they're on the road. It's a natural solution for a high-tech city that's low on highway lanes.

5. Like Portland's TriMet, Chicago Transit Authority has taken advantage of mobile app technology to make commutes a bit less stressful. Unlike Portland, Chicago's apps can be the difference between walking right to your bus, or spending long, long minutes exposed to Chicago's merciless winter temperatures. The CTA's Bus Tracker Web site has long let windy citizens use GPS to track buses' precise locations (given Chicago's unpredictable weather, buses are rarely right on schedule). Since opening the platform to third-party developers, two apps have been developed that beam buses' precise locations right to freezing Chicagoans' iPhones, allowing them to huddle indoors until the very last minute.

So what's next for civic apps? As more cities centralize and release their data in machine-readable formats, the sky is potentially the limit as hungry developers devour it, mash it up, and make it useful. One promising sign: President Obama's Chief Information Officer, Vivek Kundra, has followed through with his promise to get data.gov up and running, creating a repository of federal government data that developers can access and build apps around. The more cities and towns that follow this model, the more informed and engaged citizens will be, and the more hyperlocal apps can become. The cities above have proven that if the data is there, the apps will follow; what those apps might look like is anyone's guess.

Did we miss a good civic app? Is there an app you would like to see? Add it to the comments below.

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8 Comments

  • Anthony Caponiti

    Apps for Democracy in Washington, DC should definitely be included in the same breath as these five cities. The first two rounds of competition were extremely successful and had huge backing from the DC city mayor's office.

  • Miles Lasater

    You asked if there are other civic apps out there. I'd like to mention one that can be used in every city: SeeClickFix.

    The SeeClickFix iPhone app launched last week and allows people to report quality of life issues to government or other public officials. There is also a mobile web version.

    You don't have to wait until your city has the money or time to build something. You can start using SeeClickFix today.

    Full disclosure: I'm on the board of the company.

  • Clay Dillow

    That is true, most cities have only opened up some data streams, most of them transit related it seems. Creating these kinds of citywide data hubs takes time and planning, and for that San Francisco deserves praise. They've got the backbone in place before everyone else. It would be great to see someone, be it the city of San Francisco or some private entity, put up some kind of economic incentive for developers to start working with the data, as Bloomberg has done in NYC.

  • Ariel Schwartz

    Have any of these cities opened up as much data as SF to the public? Seems like all of them focus on specific data streams (i.e. public transportation, traffic). And the NYC domain won't be operational until next year, right?