Apps for The City

Posted by Sam Churchill on

Max Ogden doesn’t remember exactly how he heard about Portland’s Civic Apps project, writes Ron Knox in Portland’s Willamette Week. But his work paved the way for others.

The City’s CivicApps program began this March (Portland Wiki). The goal of the open source design contest was to promote collaboration between citizens and government — to create “apps” that address civic issues and benefit the greater Portland community.

As Ron Knox writes:

The Portland Apps project, modeled after Washington, D.C.’s, 2008 “Apps for Democracy” and led by Rick Nixon at the city’s Bureau of Technology Services, would offer grassroots developers cash awards of up to $3,000 for inventing the most innovative and useful software applications using the city’s public information.

The project is the cornerstone of the city’s $57,000 e-Government program driven by Mayor Sam Adams and city Chief Technology Officer Mark Greinke. City leaders hoped the release of the data earlier this year would prompt local hackers to spawn mobile applications to help citizens find everything.

Only, it didn’t exactly work out that way. At least not yet.

And that’s where Ogden comes in. A 21-year-old programmer who works for local market-research software firm Revelation, he quickly discovered what Nixon and the city knew early on to be a fundamental flaw in how it presented its data to citizen developers and hackers:

Almost no one knew how to use it.

Government data is, in essence, a series of near-endless lists of stuff. Bus stops. Parks. Street construction projects. Wheelchair-accessible curbs. On and on. Every local government agency has tons of similar lists of information, chronicling the stuff they track, license, own and maintain.

Problem is, most application developers don’t know how to use this information, at least not in the format government agencies keep it in.

Ogden stepped in with a project that, almost by accident, won him a $1,000 Civic Apps award to build a bridge between the static city information and more dynamic, usable applications.

Under Ogden’s system, all the data is stored on a dedicated Portland API server, instead of hundreds of smaller, personal servers. This way, when an agency updates its lists, everyone has access to the most current information.

Ogden’s API project is also completely open-source. That way, every project a developer undertakes using data stored on Ogden’s servers will potentially lay the groundwork for dozens of other, similar applications.

Winners and Runners Up were announced recently. John McBride’s was judged most useful, Edwin Knuth’s #pdxhash was judged best in originality and inventiveness, the Civic Choice Award went to Gary Kee for Clackamas County Fire/EMS Twitter and Max Ogden’s was judged best overall utilization of the datasets. Best of Show Award ($3000 prize) went to Andy Wallace for PDX Bus, judged the top overall app.

Ogden says his own free iPhone application, offering a searchable map of every food cart in the city, is currently awaiting approval from Apple.

The city of Denver is moving to open-source. It recently adopted Alfresco Software as its document management system, replacing 14 different software environments.

Posted by Sam Churchill on Wednesday, August 11th, 2010 at 5:06 pm .

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