Thursday, August 4, 2011

Apps for Milwaukee

The open government data movement is a global effort to increase government transparency, civic participation and innovation through public access to municipal data. In the age of the ubiquitous software application (app) for use via personal computer or mobile device, governments around the world are profiting from the creativity of tech-savvy citizens by making data available for the development of useful apps. Since 2008, several U.S. cities, including Washington D.C., San Francisco, and, most notably, Chicago, have started to share government data and even sponsor competitions to encourage the creation of innovative local apps.

Could open government data improve quality of life in Milwaukee? Perhaps Chicago’s experience will help answer that question. Apps for Metro Chicago, which launched on June 24th, is currently accepting submissions for the first of three rounds of competition. The first round seeks apps aimed at improving transportation in the Chicago metro area, with subsequent rounds focusing more broadly on solving community problems and improving services. With $50,000 in prizes, the public will help to choose the winners by voting for the apps they believe are most useful.

Apps for Metro Chicago is the first competition of its kind to involve four levels of government: the City of Chicago, Cook County, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, and the State of Illinois. Together, these governments have made more than 175 data sets available to the public in an open format. These data sets range from municipal service requests to hospital information to neighborhood demographics.

Chicago’s competition is also unique in its emphasis on rewarding civic value. The judges will grant bonuses for participants who partner with a business or nonprofit to solve a real, local problem. As the competition’s website states, “the key to winning this contest is to demonstrate that you have created something useful for our community.”

In addition to rewarding community partnerships in the judging phase of the competition, Apps for Metro Chicago is actively helping to connect community organizations looking to solve specific problems with citizens with the skills to create apps. Metro Chicago Information Center (MCIC), the research and consulting group coordinating the competition, is working to make these kinds of connections. One interesting partnership is a collaboration between a local industrial retention initiative and an app developer to write a truck routing app that takes into account weight limits, clearances, road blockages, and other factors to improve the efficiency of distribution.

The accessibility of government data in Milwaukee certainly would impact the replication of a similar competition here. The City of Milwaukee has COMPASS and Map Milwaukee, useful web-based tools that provide municipal data on local demographics, property, crime, traffic accidents and more. These applications allow Milwaukeeans to query information and create maps, but the data is not in an open format and thus cannot be easily reused and shared. The Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee also makes a limited number of data sets available for public use, including information on neighborhood demographics, crime, and geography. Their Data Center also provides technical assistance to the public to help make the data easier to understand and utilize.

One Milwaukee-specific app that has already been developed is the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) bus tracker, which estimates bus arrival times. It can be downloaded for iPhone or Android mobile phones. While certainly a useful tool, the bus tracker tool bases its estimates on set route schedules and could be improved by utilizing the GPS technology already used by MCTS buses to report arrival estimates in real time. Similar real time apps have been created in many U.S. cities, including Chicago.

If the city, county, and other government bodies opened their data sets to public use, the possibilities could be endless. Judging by developments in other cities, it is possible to imagine apps that allow us to find out what’s happening in Milwaukee neighborhoods on a given day along with information on where we can park our bicycle or car nearby, report potholes on our streets and receive notification of repairs, or keep us updated on how our representatives at all levels of government vote on important issues.

With resources like COMPASS, Map Milwaukee, and the Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee’s Data Center, Milwaukee is in a good position to take the next step by making more municipal data available in an open format. Creatively using such data could be a simple and cost effective way to make government more useful to today’s tech-savvy citizenry.

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