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Summary:

New York City’s new Chief Digital Officer Rachel Sterne said New York City is trying to turn the city’s government into a platform that enables developers and individuals to take data about life in the metropolis and use it to create apps, services and other resources.

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New York City may be a lot of things — the city that never sleeps, the Big Apple, home of Ground Zero — but its future is as a data platform, says the city’s newly-appointed chief digital officer, Rachel Sterne. In a presentation at the Activate conference on Thursday, put on by The Guardian newspaper at the Paley Center for Media, Sterne said New York City is trying hard to turn the city’s government into a platform that enables both developers and individuals to take data about life in the metropolis and use it to create apps, services and other resources. “We need to help create an ecosystem that enables both transparency and also economic growth,” Sterne said.

The city has been trying to do that in a number of ways, Sterne told the conference, including its Open Data initiative, which has produced more than 350 public data sets developers and services can use, and has helped power the BigApps challenge that awards prizes of up to $40,000 to the winner of a competition for best city-data based app. Winners include Roadify, which allows users to share traffic and parking-related data with others and incorporates data from the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and the Don’t Eat At app — which sends an alert to users if the restaurant they check into on Foursquare is in danger of being shut down due to health risks.

The city is also in the process of implementing QR codes on construction permits, so users with smartphones can scan the code and see all the information about that project, from the contact information for the construction company to any past violations the contractors have had with the city.

Rachel Sterne

Other elements of the city’s efforts are more social-media oriented, Sterne said, including the regular Twitter discussions with Mayor Michael Bloomberg that take place using the “#AskMike” hashtag: a form of direct engagement with the city’s government that would have been almost unheard of even a few years ago. The city’s NotifyNYC alert service, which sends users notifications about serious events like fires, road closures and other emergencies, is also reachable on Twitter now, said Sterne, as is the 311 service that allows citizens to notify government about potholes and other issues. There’s also a public map of all the reports from the past five days, with their status as resolved or unresolved, which Sterne called an exercise in “radical transparency.”

The city also has recently launched a couple of new efforts that involve partnerships with outside agencies, said Sterne — including a joint venture between the parks department and a service called Broadcastr, which allows users to listen to audio walking tours of various popular spots, as well as a partnership with a service called ChangeByUs that’s designed to create “a collaborative platform for communities to share ideas for making a better city,” Sterne said. The site is also set up to connect people who use the site with resources within the city government who can “help cut through some of the red tape.”

New York City isn’t the only metro region to experiment with social media or open data. Governments in cities throughout North America have begun to open up much of their data, and some mayors, such as New Jersey’s Cory Booker, have become well-known for engaging with citizens through Twitter. And some are taking the idea of transparency even further than the Big Apple. Philadelphia’s City Controller has launched an iPhone app called Philly Watchdog designed to let residents snap photos of city staff who are engaged in fraud or abuse of city resources and send them to the Controller’s office.

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr user Nathan Siemers

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  1. Jason Varmazis Friday, April 29, 2011

    This is the tip of the data iceberg. As well defined data becomes freely available, software developers will mash it up with other data and applications creating brand new transformative apps. Given that it is happening in NYC, one can only imagine what exciting game changing services will be delivered to the citizens.

  2. Pete Forde Monday, May 2, 2011

    As a fellow Torontonian, I can’t help but feel embarrassed that we’re not further ahead. Considering Mayor Ford’s cost-cutting rhetoric, you’d think that he’d be all over open data like gravy on a train. Yet the folks that do the Toronto Open Data site are largely staffers working without much recognition. It doesn’t seem like the average bureaucrat here has a clue.

    How do we create the change we need so badly?

    1. Pete, what you ask for requires visionary leadership and an understanding of technology. Mayor Bloomberg built a data technology empire in his prior life, so he gets it. Mayor Ford inherited a label printing business and thinks progress is penny pinching on coffee served at meetings. So NYC will move forward, while Toronto under the current regime is likely to stagnate.

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