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August 11th, 2010 Ron Knox | News Stories
 

App Dancing

Portland’s Civic Apps project hits some bumps.

     
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IMAGE: chibirmingham.com

Max Ogden doesn’t remember exactly how he heard about Civic Apps—maybe it was through Twitter or something?—but he remembers his first thought when he saw what was being offered: What is this stuff?

Good question.

The whole premise behind Civic Apps projects, both in Portland and at least a half-dozen other U.S. cities, is to release massive sets of city data to local software developers. The hope was, those developers would transform the data—the nearest greenspace or bike lockup, a map of the city’s heritage trees and more than a hundred other items—into mobile applications that would help your average, iPhone-toting resident navigate his or her city.

The Portland 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.

Adams says the $25,000 for this piece of the project is “leveraged a thousand times over with the private effort it leverages.”

“It’s something that I think is a really smart, really efficient way to deliver economic development and government services,” the mayor says.

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.

Here’s the first thing you should know about Ogden: He wants you to go outside. And he wants you to go outside on scavenger hunts. To meet your neighbors. To connect with people, not just through a 140-character, virtual handshake.

“I view technology as a good way to be efficient,” he says. “But it shouldn’t replace how people really communicate.”

So here Ogden sits, at a table in the Lucky Labrador’s expansive taproom in North Portland with several other programmers. It’s just after 7 pm on a Monday. And Ogden is working on the city’s Civic Apps rollout, clacking away on a laptop, red beard hanging down to his chest, black glasses resting halfway down his nose—this kind of Norse figure, swinging a virtual sledgehammer, knocking down walls between the city’s troves of information and the community, hoping to transform it into slick mobile applications for Portlanders.

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.

Most of those lists are stored in a way that places the listed objects on a map. Problem is, most application developers don’t know how to use this information, at least not in the format government agencies keep it in.

In theory, handing over a list of all 10,000 or so bus stops would allow the tech community to build applications that show you which stops are close to where you and your iPhone are standing. But in practice, it’s as if the city just piled a dump truck full of needles at your feet, then asked you to find the needles you needed. It’s a near-impossible task, and any magnet that might do the trick doesn’t exist.

Or at least not until 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.

“There’s a huge disconnect from people that make this geo software, and software developers who make things that actual citizens can use,” Ogden says.

His project, called Portland API, is becoming that bridge. It lets developers use a common language to manipulate the information in ways they’re familiar with. Now, instead of having to download a clunky file containing all of the city’s 10,000 or so bus stops, for example, the API lets developers build applications that query only what users are seeking—every bus stop within, say, a half-mile of your house.

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.

For the city to build its own API, it would have had to hire contractors, adding an extra layer of cost and proprietary control to the project.

“It’s as deeply mysteriously geeky to the average Portland citizen as one could imagine,” Adams says. “But it’s really important that our raw information isn’t so raw that we exclude the talent needed to put it to good use.”

City leaders say Ogden’s project is the essence of Civic Apps’ aim—cohesion between the city’s open-source data and its vibrant developer community.

For Ogden, the project is really about people, about communities—this new, inspired vision for the “civic Web,” where everything the Web offers is intended to push you out into the real world, to meet real people and do real things.

While Ogden’s project uses city information now, eventually everyone will be able to build data sets about whatever they’d like to chronicle.

Want to list every business that has a cat? Get out there and make it. How about every rope swing in Portland, or the location of every stenciled stop sign? Just go outside, find them, and add them to the API. Once it’s in, enterprising developers like Ogden can use that crowd-sourced information the same as they would use info the city provides—to build rich, interactive iPhone applications for the masses.

Ogden says his work is perhaps only days from paying off. His own free iPhone application, offering a searchable map of every food cart in the city, is currently awaiting the almighty nod of approval from Apple.

But he says that’s just one small step. He’s got big plans for the city’s Civic Apps information. And once people begin adding their own sets of information, the conversation between people and the city they live in can really begin.

“I like to think that the people here will understand the utility of sharing data,” Ogden says. “It will be a cool experiment to see how viable it is.”


FACT: Forbes magazine ranks Portland as America’s 10th most wired city, scoring it in the top 15 for per capita broadband adoption, access to broadband and wireless Internet hotspots.

 
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