Don’t make laws to make maps
Hey, legislators! Don’t write laws that require maps (especially those that detail how the map information will be aggregated).
Instead, write laws to open up data. The maps will come. Much easier. Shorter, future-proofed laws.
If you feel strongly about this, go testify. @transalt will be there, and other open data smarties.
This time, the law under discussion is about crash data in NYC, but the same unfortunate approach already made it into law for crime data. Interactive maps are an excellent tool to making complex data public, but requirements for a city agency to produce the map is not the right approach. Why not?
1. We need tools that answer questions and solve problems, and doing that well requires you to start with those needs, rather than building a generic map.
2. The track record of government-built maps is not great, maybe because of #1, or the tools they have, or because of internal development practices that don’t involve users, or something else. For example, the SLA liquor license map.
3. The track record of researchers and technologists and journalists to build data browsing tools is excellent. For example, excellent crime analysis, insightful 311 analysis, everything WNYC does, Vizzuality’s output etc.
4. There are complex tech problems that talented government technologists should work on. Making an interactive map isn’t one of them.
5. Legislation that is extremely specific seems brittle and prone to letter-of-the-law following later. Especially if a city department decided to be uncooperative in the future. Whereas full disaggregated data is flexible. We already have guidelines for opening up data “right”, no need to re-design this for each different type of data. Getting particular about mapping requirements is the worst sort of over-specifying. For crashes, maybe the aggregation by street segment prevents analysis of intersection safety (for example).
CDOT Performance Management Dashboard:
Crying out for a really nice front end! Interesting data here…
The tables in this dashboard work to promote transparency and accountability by providing real-time information about CDOT’s performance of the multiple public way infrastructure maintenance tasks we take on every day.
The charts provide a breakdown of the types of tasks performed, the number of requests for services, the number of requests that have been addressed and those current open. The information is updated on a daily basis.
dashboard, chicago, DOT, osp
“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.”
Great. We need more community-owned insights. 311 seems to be a hugely under-valued community asset, for lots of reasons. Hopefully this cool project from David Eaves and SeeClickFix will start to make the locked-up value in 311 more accessible to everyone.
Announcing the 311 Data Challenge, soon to be launched on Kaggle | eaves.ca
Thoughts on business models for civic tech
A frequent topic among the civic tech chatteratti is the question of business models… How do we take these great ideas for civic engagement and scale them to orders of magnitude more people, operating as sustainable businesses with happy employees?
Although the non-profit model works for OpenPlans, I’m personally very keen to see more for-profit efforts - if what we’re doing is so great, it must be possible to do it without depending on members, foundations, etc.
(Boarding a plane to the Knight News Challenge Summer School today, I decided to write down some thoughts that have been rattling around in my head for months. There’s a shorter, more coherent argument to be made, but here’s a first pass, public draft.)
First, some thoughts about the common challenges faced by civic tech businesses. Not all firms have these problems, and none of these are impossible barriers, a problem is just an opportunity with a frowny-face, etc.
- The thought-diaspora of civic tech can be seen as very resilient, because we have many small firms that are independently going after similar goals. But we’re also a fragile collection — every government entity has a technology incumbent, and they aren’t going quietly. You can’t expect to take a multi-million dollar industry away and not experience some pushback (those golf club memberships have to be paid for somehow).
- We’re also fragile because some of the best ideas are either hard to scale, or coming from places that aren’t set up to scale or sell. Perhaps because of our hacker/fellowship origins, we’re good at coming up with creative solutions to problems, but less good at the other stuff. E.g. CrowdGauge or StreetMix.
- For civic engagement and planing software, there’s a risk of larger non-tech incumbents in the space moving in. When margins are thin, will the mega engineering firms develop in-house expertise in (say) TileMill or Shareabouts rather than going outside. Will young firms blaze a trail, only to see older firms cash in?
- Cities are often keen to work with local firms, and local talent - which is great, but it creates a market distortion that is bad for small firms based in a different city, even if their product is great.
- Smaller municipalities have a hard time spending money on things.
- And of course, procurement throws up all sorts of complexities.
Here are three approaches I’ve been musing over. The guiding principle for all of these is to preserve what works so well - small firms with the capacity to deliver groundbreaking tools - but scaled up drastically.
- the Civic Tech Collaborative, working together to get better at selling
- Scaling Together, working together to address the challenge of scaling
- More Local Tech, getting out of the way so a thousand developers take these tools to their communities.
I see a lot of challenges to those three approaches. In particular, I have an un-resolved conflict between the necessity to scale and the inability to scale - if these tools are so great, and as powerful as I think, why do we need the complex approaches described above?
Civic Tech Collaborative
Multiple small vendors who are affiliated and cross-promoting.
Focus on tools that aren’t on a trajectory to stand-alone sustainability already (so, not GovDelivery or Textizen, but maybe Shareabouts and Local Data).
A coherent, unified offering of a few smaller tools coming from the Code for America class each year, plus OpenPlans, and other incubators. Potentially, hiring a professional sales and support staff, to wrap a ribbon of professionalism around a number of tools at once, without each group having that expense.
So for example, OpenPlans could offer our services and re-sell other good tools without creating a procurement headache for clients.
There’s a version of this model where the collaborative shares skills rather than tools — the McKinsey of civic tech, like a more technical Bennet Midland.
Possibly as part of the same collaborative, a grouping that helps turn good standalone projects into feasible service offerings.
The group finds people with expertise in running and tuning service versions of tools, in a manner that makes government IT people happy. The world of civic tech seems to be loaded towards the front end, so finding skills to scale up a service or even just make hosting something that’s robust could be a good compliment. This approach saves each small outfit from needing to bring these skills onboard.
(This one fascinates me.) Local tech expertise is already helping cities with their web problems. Can we give new tools to those teams, and also help toolmakers be successful?
Local tech expertise is often cheaper, and more accessible. For society more generally this might be a good thing — the tax dollars stay local, and government contracts are rewarding work for local developers. We all win if more small development shops are actively re-deploying the best civic tech, by having more people skilled at using and offering tools.
Tool producers can worry less about selling tools to smaller places, but need to find revenue streams to support core development. The obvious example is Wordpress and Automattic, but the parallels aren’t quite true, and the density of work is lower, both for the core development team and the individual re-sellers.
“What’s clear to me is what local government maps need is less GIS and a lot more user-friendly auto-complete and SEO. Because in the end users want search and retrieval to work for maps the way it works for the rest of the web.”
Great analysis of how people use maps online. Less GIS, more search, more web.
How the Public Actually Uses Local Government Web Maps: Metrics from Denver.
Simple tech for actual problems
I gave a quick demo of the Liquor License Helper at #betaNYC tonight. It’s a really crude tool that generates a list of churches within 200ft and places with liquor licenses within 500ft - important info for community boards deciding if a particular location is viable for a license.
The tool has some major issues — bad address search, problems with using land use parcels rather than addresses, distance between parcels isn’t distance to entrances, bad source data, etc, etc. All true.
But (hopefully) the point of the tool comes through - there’s a legit need for a couple of simple data queries, which community groups are doing right now with Word docs, old paper maps, human memory, and other tools. For various reasons, those are likely the right tool for some jobs. But not for looking up property details within a defined radius.
We don’t even need a map to convey this info - in fact, a map might make the report less helpful. Hitting Print brings up a lightly-optimized version for taking to meetings, copying, handing out, etc. Addresses are the pertinent data here (I think… based on my small sample of conversations with people at boards, who as target users are the only people who can really judge the value of this tool).
Let’s make more tools like this! It was easy (CartoDB and some queries). Let’s keep discovering and churning out simple tools for actual problems until all the easy problems are dealt with.
WhichHood.org is now more fun. Check it out.
Above, some emerging Brooklyn neighborhoods following a burst of interest after the GeoNYC meetup last week.
“If you have a problem and can’t come up with a solution, I suggest you take it to Temple University’s Urban Apps and Maps Studio. The 130 Philadelphia teens who participated this summer seem capable of solving anything.”
Just read this piece by Donna Frisby-Greenwood right after finishing “Race Against the Machine"… A great case study for the optimism of the final chapter?
Donna checks out demos at the end of the six-week summer program of research, fieldwork and software dev skills, and shares some amazing stories —
“Two of [the teens] said they originally thought there wasn’t anything they could do to help their city, so it felt amazing to contribute ideas that might make a difference. In fact, Moira Baylson, deputy director for the Philadelphia Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, was so excited that she wanted the students to get started with their plans immediately.”
Local kids are building Philly’s future, one app at a time.
Brilliant project. Understanding the scope of public notices is the first step to coming up with new tools and standards — and what better approach to doing the survey than going out and taking pics?
Maps of NYC geodata:
On github, by dwillis. Very cool.
osp, geo, nyc
Here is the soaring vision that Skybox’s founders have sold the Valley: that kids from Stanford, using inexpensive consumer hardware, can ring Earth with constellations of imaging satellites that are dramatically cheaper to build and maintain than the models currently aloft. By blanketing the exosphere with its cameras, Skybox will quickly shake up the stodgy business (estimated to grow to $4 billion a year by 2018) of commercial space imaging. Even with six small satellites orbiting Earth, Skybox could provide practically real-time images of the same spot twice a day at a fraction of the current cost.
But over the long term, the company’s real payoff won’t be in the images Skybox sells. Instead, it will derive from the massive trove of unsold images that flow through its system every day—images that, when analyzed by computer vision or by low-paid humans, can be transmogrified into extremely useful, desirable, and valuable data.
osp, satellite, imagery, data
David Barrie’s writing on ‘Open source’ place-making:
How to deliver a Big Society - a place that acts as a catalyst to and inspires grassroots local activism - in the most bureaucratic, statist and controlled public space of them all: the built environment? Here’s one answer: ‘open source’ place-making. This is an approach to urban development that centres on the making of an implementable ‘social action plan’ first - not a master plan - is inspired by the autonomy that many people want from their lives and seeks to create places through an unfolding process of interaction design first, architecture second.”
osp, placemaking, participation
Why aren’t we building tools that transform the experience of being an engaged citizen?
At FOCAS13 I was lucky enough to spend several hours talking about citizen involvement in city decisions, as part of a great working group. We ultimately produced a short proposal for the Public Experience Network, to help city staff directly tap experience around specific issues.
During our presentation back to the group, I described our suggested approach. Build the tool, and get it widely in use — a tool-centered approach, but one that was guided by municipal staff and citizen needs (I was a lot less eloquent at the time, as you can see in the team presentation video below around the 29 min mark).
Feedback from the group was near-unanimous: we should start with people first. Start by building a network, understand the issues, and bring the tech much later.
This response clarified something that has been bothering me. Why aren’t we working on transformative tools that reshape the experience of being an engaged citizen? Don’t tell me our current trajectory is really the best we can all collectively manage.
Are we scared or otherwise incapable of imagining consumer-style tech for city governments? Can’t we expand the business and scale models that we’re prepared to consider for government tools? Why aren’t we more entrepreneurial, thinking much, much bigger and more at web-scale?
Where are the products? We should be seeing many more consumer-style tools for small government tasks. We’re all anxious to see municipalities become better at communicating with Twitter, Facebook, Mailchimp and others. And with MindMixer, Textizen, Shareabouts and more, municipalities can do some really sophisticated public involvement. In between these two groups of tools seems like a fertile area for new projects. For the Public Experience Network example, where is the next MailChimp or Google Docs for outreach tasks that thousands of small cities do daily? Are we settling into a misapprehension that are cities just too small, their needs too specialized, and informationally low-density that product at scale can’t reach them?
Selling to cities is really hard, so that’s one possible answer for our timidity, but is the grind of selling getting in the way of other opportunities? I don’t think this is just a procurement issue, especially in smaller places. If the opportunity is so big, how come we’re all so focused on sustainability first? Maybe we can’t see for all the blood and sweat in our eyes.
Maybe we’re over cautious because of civic tech’s problem of build-it-they-will-come attitudes. Without users at the table to drive needs, the wrong tools are created, serving the interests of developers rather than users. I agree with all this. But why can’t an organically adopted tool be as responsive to needs? Can’t it have the same ultimate impact as a carefully assembled top-down approach? In fact, shouldn’t the organic tool have a bigger impact?
I’m not asking these questions rhetorically. I want to work out the answers. If there are real barriers to organic, widespread adoption of new tools by cities, let’s identify them and break them down.
I think there’s a huge business opportunity lying untouched because we’re too cautious. I just don’t know what it is yet.
Link: CultureBlocks, mapping place and creativity
Nice to see topic-focused mapping.
"CultureBlocks is a free mapping tool that supports people making decisions about place and creativity in Philadelphia. Use it for research, planning, exploration and investment."
tools, osp, mapping, philly
Link: NYC BigApps 2013 BigIssues
good to see bigapps tackle real problems this year — jobs/economic mobility, energy/environment, lifelong learning, healthy living.
"This year, NYC BigApps is tapping the best and brightest minds to work together to help solve major challenges - or as we like to call them, BigIssues - affecting New York City residents, visitors, and businesses. We’ve selected four focus areas for the 2013 competition and invited experts to develop problem briefs that vividly describe BigIssues within each category. You can choose to solve any of the BigIssues outlined in the problem briefs or create your own BigIssue to tackle."
bigapps, hackathons, nyc, blueridge, osp