Rise of The Open City

Envision a scenario where all city data and systems were open to be consumed. Restaurant inspection grades combined with data from Yelp so people can see restaurant reviews next to health information. An open 311 infrastructure where developers create 3rd party apps that directly push information to the city. GPS data shows where the trash pickup trucks are in real time, just in case you forget to put out your garbage. An alert that lets you know when street construction is happening near you. A page showing potholes patched vs. potholes remaining. Re-zoning signs with QR codes to take you to more information with a scan.

All of these are scenarios are possible with robust open data. But to attempt this with our current infrastructure, you’d have to look up which agency owns which data and you’d likely have to write 7 FOIA requests, wait a very long amount of time and pay a fee for each set you wanted to get for a variable cost just to get data that by then would be out of date.  Once you did it might be in pdf form and have to manually pull each number from each form into a spreadsheet…Not a task worth pursuing.

Cities collect a staggering amount of data, most of it stays behind closed doors, there for only city employees to analyze and make decisions. But across the country, they have begun to open their troves of data in order to increase transparency, lower costs, drive innovation and spur analysis among citizens. The collective power and knowledge of the people of a city will always be far greater than the government employees, and so we cannot and should not rely on them to do everything. Community groups, neighborhood watch, area non-profits, volunteers are all trying to improve conditions and a more open government better leverages this great collective power.

We can look at the open source software movement as an example of how a more open policy leads to greater collaboration and output. An open source piece of software is a program whose code is freely and publicly available. (Imagine Coke publishing their recipe for anyone to use). Traditionally, groups writing software have kept their code under lock and key in order to reap all the financial benefits from that intellectual property. But as large numbers of volunteers contribute for free in order to improve codebases, more and more programs are being open sourced to take advantage of benefits that closed, proprietary software doesn’t have. When code is available, it can be copied, improved and optimized. These branches can go on and on….one programmer has one addition, which sparks an idea in another, while others jump in along the process and provide their own unique inputs. Some might be good, some might be bad, but this trial and error is what drives innovation and creativity. If you’re a fan of the game 2048 you can thank hundreds of open source developers who copied an original game and made improvements and modifications until it became what it is today. And it continues to have offshoots that some people enjoy more than the original. This movement along with sites like Wikipedia have transformed and changed our conception of what collaboration and incentive is as people work to improve the world and create for free.

Individuals collectively contributing their talent, time and work to the whole….that sounds a lot like a city doesn’t it? A city is nothing more than a giant open source project – no one owns a city, it is a collective effort. Every time one of us calls 911, reports a down stop sign, picks up litter, takes in a stray dog, we are contributing to our project. But without data and information, we can’t efficiently utilize the expertise and time of area non-profits, neighborhood associations, volunteer groups and citizens looking to improve their corners of the city. Imagine if Apple had decided to write all its own apps instead of opening up the iPhone as a platform for 3rd party developers. As much talent as there is at that Apple, they knew the creativity, time and talent of millions of developers around the world would be better at learning and filling user needs than their company could. Cities can and should be making the same decisions.  We should move toward ‘The city as a platform’ as tech media mogul Tim O’Reilly explains:

“Eventually….government would itself be the platform, like the screen display on an iPhone or a tablet— a multipurpose interface on which citizens could rely and for which they would find their own creative new uses. It’s an ideal of technology so well integrated into urban life that any citizen can dive deep into data about crime; where anyone can write an app for fellow residents; where data and analytics are built into the work of government to the benefit of all its constituents. It’s Chicago, that gruff epitome of an industrial-age metropolis, that is making the city-as-platform idea into reality— joining London, Barcelona, and other global cities in this endeavor.”

A city shouldn’t create all these apps, but they should expose the data for those with incentives to create user experiences for citizens, as explained in the book of essays curated by Code for America, ‘Beyond Transparency’:

“Rather than struggling, as it currently does, to design sites that meet each end-user need, it should focus on creating a simple, reliable, and publicly accessible infrastructure to ‘expose’ the underlying data.”

In early 2009, DART became the 4th transit agency in the country (after Portland and BART and Caltrain in San Francisco) to make the decision to open up its schedule data to the public through a program called GTFS (Google Transit Feed Specification). It’s the reason why, in Dallas, on google maps you can now select transit as well as driving directions. Hundreds of agencies in the US have since followed suit and developers around the country have built apps and pages based on this data. I have created a visualization on my site to help people understand the DART bus system using the exact same data that drives google maps. No, it’s not perfect, it’s not going to change the world or win any awards, but it illustrates the purpose of open data. I didn’t have to write a letter to ask for it through a Freedom of Information Act Request (FOIA). I didn’t have to wait for 6 weeks or more and badger someone to send it to me. I just downloaded it, played around with it and thought about what might be interesting to create.


In the google maps example, the government transit agencies that participate simply provide standardized data. Google creates the user experience, which they’re better at. The consumer wins because they get a better user experience, google gets people to their site and the transit agencies get more ridership. Costs are lowered because the agency doesn’t have to spend money on design. (Google can use the same code for every city because the data is all standardized – formatted the same way). Everybody wins. I released my visualization yesterday, and this tweet is a great example of what I mean (GoPass – created by DART, is one of the best transit apps in the country):

DART didn’t create my page, but with open data they get credit at no cost. In Dallas, there are many examples where user experience could be improved if the data were available and consumable for developers and the tech community. Take the restaurant scores website. If a 3rd party wanted to create a page using this data to improve the user interface, they’d have to ‘scrape’ it and manually put the data in their site. And they’d have to update it every time a restaurant was inspected. Whatever money the city used to create this page should go to releasing this data through their portal in a machine readable, programmer friendly format like csv (basically Excel, but without formulas or colors), XML or JSON. When you have to deal with pdfs, you have to manually copy and paste the information into a usable form (poor interns).


PDF- the information cemetery. CSV, XML, JSON- information gardens:


And it’s not just about creating positive user experiences to make life easier for citizens- it’s also about using this information to understand problems and find solutions in order to allocate resources where they’re needed most. In my role at the Commit Partnership, we have utilized open data from the Texas Education Agency to create a free dashboard to make it easier for district administrators, community leaders and non-profits to understand where we’re having outlier success. The more this data is siloed and locked, the less efficient our decision making will be. If we could combine city, census, educational data we could better understand the full picture because no variable exists in a vacuum. For each group that walls off their data, we lose a piece of the puzzle.

Other cities are further along in this process. How can we learn from them and do it in Dallas? What made it happen? In Chicago, Rahm Emmanuel made this his first priority upon election, “telling the heads of all departments to “get in line.” That set the tone. Those who would use data to improve the lives of Chicagoans would not have to work under cover. The mayor would sweep aside all obstacles.” Former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg has a clear track record in technology and data. He made billions of dollars combining public data from the SEC with private information for financial analysts and used that background to bring the same mindset to New York. Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti has turned LA into the most open city in the country. You can see how obsessed he is with data from his recent speech at the US conference of mayors where he shared an open source dashboard for cities across the country. As Executive Director of Smart Chicago Daniel X O’Neil explains, “This is a pattern of powerful, enlightened, elected officials in the executive branch deciding that open data is good policy.” Another thing several cities have done is open sourced their code to the developer community. For example, any developer, data scientist or analyst in the world can contribute to the code for the city of Chicago that uses predictive analytics to foresee critical code violations at Chicago restaurants. That’s taking advantage of talent. Despite these obvious advantages, this type of policy is going to require a change in mindset. As former Michael Bloomberg aide Stephen Goldsmith explains in ‘The Responsive City,’

“City officials often worry whether opening their data to the public will embarrass their administrations. The reality is almost always the opposite. People who want to embarrass or attack city hall can always find ammunition. But concerned residents and interested app developers end up helping city hall when they know more. The ties of trust and democracy are strengthened by openness.”

So strong support from leadership from the top down combined with a shift in mindset could push for more priority for open data in the budget, which is necessary for sustainability. Despite a lack of these catalysts up to this point (and a late start), we’ve have made great progress in Dallas. The Dallas Innovation Alliance is an exciting new step toward becoming a smart city. And thanks to a group of forward thinking city employees who understand the value of open data and have worked extremely hard to unleash it we have a catalog of datasets on our open portal. A year ago, Dallas ranked #57 on the US City Open Data Census. We have climbed to #31. We are #13 in terms of data sets released for 2015 and there is more coming. This progress is extremely exciting, but the peer cities we are behind have entire budget funds allocated toward only their open data initiatives. It’s time we provided this support to ours.