How SAP and cities are boosting innovation through open data

Listening to a couple of coders gush over the virtues of gamification, location-based mobile services and open data standards, I might have mistaken the techies for sneaker-wearing pitchmen at a Silicon Valley hackathon.

But this was midtown Manhattan. Instead of B-school dropouts, the geeks in question were actually silver-haired civil servants in charge of the IT operations for Boston and Edmonton. Though centuries old, each of the cities is racing towards decidedly cutting-edge goals of opening up access to municipal data for their residents and businesses to use and commercialize.

“Successful cities of the future aren’t necessarily the most efficient. It’s about engagement and citizen empowerment,” said Bill Oates, chief information officer for the City of Boston. “Our innovation is on people, to help constituents connect with the city.”

The CIOs were brought together by SAP to mark the U.S. launch of the software giant’s Urban Matters program, which aims to help municipal governments “deliver better-run cities” by opening up data streams for citizens and business to tap into.

As this software space matures, big companies also are exploring opportunities to integrate city data feeds into current and future services.

GM is grooming its OnStar unit to become the software hub for transportation services such as RelayRides’ peer-to-peer car sharing service. The automaker recently issued protocols that will let third-party developers integrate the data beginning to flow from cities -- such as road construction information, or parking data -- into future OnStar services.

In the world of smart buildings, Johnson Controls is likewise eyeing the opportunities emerging by tapping into huge, public pools of data on the performance of buildings in Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, Washington D.C. and other cities.

Back in Boston, SAP technology is powering the city’s Boston About Results website and accompanying Citizen Insights iPhone app. Citizen Insights collects, analyzes and shares performance measures across scores of city departments from tree planting requests to fire response times.

By digitizing and opening up their data flows, most cities are trying to evolve into “better versions of themselves” rather than presume to compete with Silicon Valley, said Bruce Katz, vice president and director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.

Boston and Edmonton are pushing to lead a growing contest among cities aiming to boost their competitiveness by opening access to city data streams. Fighting to transform decades-old bureaucratic processes that tended to lock up key city information -- such as property records or tax rolls -- in hard-to-access formats, the goal is first to digitize as much information as possible.

Next page:  Can cities meet the challenge? 

As these programs grow more ambitious, cities face an outsized data challenge in scaling up these efforts. With centuries’ worth of property records or historical budget information, cities are typically sitting on mountains of data that are a challenge to digitize, standardize and make accessible.

Cities need “additional investment to deal with the analytics…of taking tens of thousands of data sets and looking inside them,” said Theresa Pardo of the Center for Technology in Government at the University of Albany (State University of New York, SUNY). “A lot of cities still have their records in paper form.”

Pardo’s center recently released a white paper, The Dynamics of Opening Government Data. The paper offers practical advice for government managers pursuing open data initiatives.

Edmonton started its open data efforts with a dozen public datasets in 2010. Today, “We have 257… San Francisco has 250,” said Chris Moore, the City of Edmonton's CIO. Moore is pleased to be edging out one of the U.S.’s most wired metropolises. 

Digitizing the information sequestered in city offices is just the beginning of the battle. Making those data streams publicly accessible and easily useable is essential for developers to build new services and businesses.

In Edmonton, for instance, the city transportation department recognized an appetite for access to information on road closures, resurfacings and the like. When the dataset went live earlier this year, it quickly became the city’s most popular feed. “After it was released, an Edmontonian created an app called YEG Constriction,” Moore told IT World Canada.

As Edmonton’s efforts unfold, Moore’s IT team hopes to stay at the front of city efforts by exploring gamification and the immersive 3D web as ways to boost public interaction with the data. For instance, the city is readying a Facebook game around traffic and safety, Moore said.

Behind all the enthusiasm for data transparency are bottom-line benefits that please city bean counters. The shift towards open data standards can deliver a big bang for the buck at a time when cities face rising demands for data services, yet have fewer resources with which to develop them.

In Edmonton, the city hosted Apps4Edmonton.ca, a contest to develop apps for city residents and businesses. “For around $50,000 we developed dozens of apps,” says Moore. Were the applications developed conventionally, he speculated, the cost of a single study of the business case would have exceeded that figure.

Code sharing between cities can further compound these savings. Boston's New Urban Mechanics initiative encourages public collaboration to develop innovative civic services, explained Oates, the city’s CIO. Among the program’s most popular apps is Street Bump, an iPhone app that helps detect and report potholes. As a result of these efforts, nearly every pothole complaint in Boston is resolved in two days or less. A couple of years ago, less than half were completed that quickly.

Now, Boston is extending and sharing its New Urban Mechanics platform with dozensof other cities and towns, where apps can be adapted or further customized.

To be sure, cities aren’t going to threaten Silicon Valley’s software titans anytime soon. But the afamiliar, infectious air of competitive innovation is developing in municipal software circles. Earlier this month, Emily Badger at The Atlantic Cities rounded up the best open data releases of 2012. From listings of green roofs in Chicago to bikeshares in Boston, the apps are promising examples of how smart software can transform existing, static city data into dynamic, interactive tools that promise to make cities greener and more efficient.

While incremental, the boom in city data apps highlights how metropolises are best positioned to push ahead with effective innovation. “Cities are a lot more pragmatic than state or national governments,” said Brooking’s Katz.

Illustration of key opening file folder provided by Artgraphics via Shutterstock.