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Civic hackers aim to crack open public data

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Hackathon
Participants gather around a computer at the Visualizing Neighborhoods hackathon in May.
Photo by Jeff Corn/Courtesy of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota

After Matt Decuir moved from Seattle to Minneapolis earlier this year, he missed the real-time apps he'd used to find out exactly when Seattle buses or trains would arrive at a stop.

Metro Transit tracks each vehicle by GPS, but doesn't present the information in an easily accessible way, Decuir said.

At a "hackathon" organized in June, where programmers gather to brainstorm and collaborate, Decuir and four other programmers decided to tackle the problem directly.

Within six hours they had a working website application that uses your location to pull up the real-time arrival of Metro Transit vehicles. You can even use it from a smartphone.

"We saw that we were doing something useful because we had traffic on the site almost immediately," Decuir said. "Twitter was blowing up because everyone was like, 'This is so cool, this is way better than the Metro Transit website."

Taking publicly available data and putting it in forms that are more easily digestible for the public is the point of so-called "civic hacking," which seeks to provide practical solutions to civic problems by applying data and design.

Decuir notes that Minnesotans have at least one pretty good reason to use the app, now named OMG Transit, "Our service is a good utility in the winter for letting you stay inside and stay w arm for longer."

HACKING FOR THE PUBLIC GOOD

OMG Transit is just one of dozens of projects that have launched as part of the civic hacking movement in the United States. Local civic hacking group Open Twin Cities was admitted just last week into the national Code for America Brigade, which includes 31 groups across the country.

Open Twin Cities co-founder Bill Bushey said civic hacking doesn't have anything in common with the criminal endeavors that many associate with hacking.

"There's this older definition of hacking, the idea of hacking from the '60s and '70s, where somebody looks at a problem and tries to solve it based on not much more than their own ingenuity and their ability to use whatever tool, be it software or hardware to solve a problem, Bushey said.

Open Twin Cities and the non-profit E-Democracy.org are planning what they call an "unconference" on Nov. 9 -- essentially a day of workshops and brainstorming on civic issues that will include policy leaders, journalists and programmers.

"The basic idea is to try to get technologists and citizens together who are interested in experimenting with technology," Bushey said. "Software and online technologies are powerful tools, and we basically want to play around with this tool and figure out how we can use it to fill some need in the community."

PUSH TO UNLEASH PUBLIC DATA

Advocates of releasing more government information, Open Twin Cities has also started to engage with public policy directly. In early September, the group sent a survey to all Minneapolis mayoral candidates asking for their positions on "open data."

"Open data is basically the 21st Century version of an age-old idea, which is that citizens want to have access to the data their government has," Bushey said. "In the context of civic hacking groups, that kind of data is one of the raw resources for making software or web applications."

It's in that spirit that civic hackers have worked with local units of government to open up city data. Minneapolis was one of the co-sponsors of the June civic hacking conference that led to the development of the real-time transit app.

"To me it's been very interesting in these hackathons to get other people's take on what information is of value, how you portray it," said Minneapolis Chief Information Officer Otto Doll. "In essence, you're kind of crowd sourcing for approaches and ideas of how to really take advantage of the information that the city actually gathers."

Doll said his department is also working to make more public data accessible. The city has set up a system called MapIT that allows departments to create maps or otherwise display data they've collected. Once there's enough information in the system, Doll said the city plans to make MapIT data public.

Other cities like Washington D.C. have been more aggressive in releasing public data than Minneapolis, but Doll said the results have been mixed. It turns out many people were unwilling to sift through the massive amounts of data. "You put something out there and, yes, it might be out there, but if nobody really uses it, what are the exact reasons for that?" Doll said. "Is it maybe because everything is out there and it's just too difficult to find something of interest?"

The cost of releasing and maintaining the data can be a challenge too.

"We're here as stewards of the public money and we want to make sure that they're getting some degree of return on investment that justifies spending that money, in my view, potentially forever," Doll said.

But Doll said governments seem to be releasing more data to the public, and that Minneapolis likely will be part of that trend.

Meanwhile, the programmers at OMG Transit are moving forward. They've set their sights on the larger goal of helping people use all sorts of alternative transportation to get around efficiently without a car. To accomplish this they've added Nice Ride bikes into their web application and will likely add some car-sharing services.

In the future, Decuir said the app might even factor in weather or traffic patterns when making recommendations to travelers.

"We're hoping this somehow evolves into a decision engine," Decuir said, "not just, 'Here's some information for you.'"