Open Source Planning

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. is now more fun. Check it out.
Above, some emerging Brooklyn neighborhoods following a burst of interest after the GeoNYC meetup last week. 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?

Link: skybox »


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

Link: David Barrie's writing on 'Open source' place-making »

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: 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

Does my comment count? Perceptions of political participation in an online environment

"Since the infancy of the Internet, scholars have posited that the medium would mobilize and engage citizens, yet the reality has proven it to be more nuanced and complex. This project examines citizens’ motivations to engage in politics online, assessing how people are driven by both a desire to influence government as well as to communicate political ideas to others. We explore the ways these two behaviors are perceived by citizens in online versus offline contexts. We also examine how such perceptions can predict certain behaviors, such as “friending” a candidate and messaging with friends about politics. We find that these behaviors are indeed perceived differently among citizens, and that perceptions predict the likelihood of participating in online political forums."

participation, edemocracy, osp

HouseFacts building inspections standard

HouseFacts building inspections standard:

Developed by the City of San Francisco, Code for America, and leading industry stakeholders the House Facts Standard is a uniform format for reporting government data on the health and safety of residential buildings.

The data standard provides a full health and safety history for every house and apartment in participating cities. Greater transparency helps keep owners accountable and further incentivizes compliance with regulations that ensure health, safety and habitability.

Link: Open Town Hall

Open Town Hall

Peak Democracy Inc’s Open Town Hall is a cloud-based online civic engagement platform that augments and diversifies public participation in ways that also enable government leaders to increase public trust in their governance.

Unlike crowd-sourcing, Open Town Hall allows governments to maintain control of the public engagement process, focus on feedback from constituents, keep the dialogue civil and legal, and also not overwhelm staff in ways that can frustrate residents.

osp, civil, discourse, town, hall