Photo: Code for America

Bringing California open data to life

Okay, I admit it: Even as a champion of open data, I find that it’s often mundane to view data on a portal. Simple lists of datasets — and even the maps and charts you can create — don’t truly show the intrinsic value of data that’s been freed to benefit communities.

Behavioral Insights for Cities

Nudging residents to better engagement

“Behavioral Insights for Cities” offers anecdotes into how governments can improve constituent engagement by implementing smarter messaging and design into print collateral, email, texts and online interactions.

Source: Wired

Obama ‘Wired’

President Obama served as guest editor for the November issue of Wired, and the entire print issue is worth investing in. Here are articles that might be of interest to those of you focused more on the civic and government technology fronts.

Photo: Esther Vargas

Driving smart city innovation with open sensor data (part 5)

While there is much technology that can be sifted into must-have, nice-to-have and maybe-someday categories without a negative impact on smart city advancement, there are a few basic pieces of technology cities will need in order to extract value from the real-time data that has already begun to flow through smart cities.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks during a visit to Capitol Factory, Austin, Tex., September 14, 2016. (DoD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith)

Ash Carter wants to keep DOD weird

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced the DOD will open its third technology innovation “outpost” in Austin, expanding the reach of the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental that serves as a “bridge between those in the U.S. military executing on some of our nation’s toughest security challenges and companies operating at the cutting edge of technology.”

Photo: Jordi Martorell

Driving smart city innovation with open sensor data (part 4)

Photo: Jordi Martorell
Photo: Jordi Martorell

This is part four of a five-part series that looks at successful strategies we at OpenDataSoft have seen our clients and others use to foster innovation and align their smart city and open data goals. The complete series “Driving Smart City Innovation with Open Sensor Data: 5 Lessons Learned” is available as a free PDF download.

Strategy 4: Treat your sensor data like a valuable asset

While it is commonly acknowledged that cities today produce massive amounts of data, it is less often noted that much of the data referenced is not actually produced directly by city systems, but rather by cities’ ecosystems of partners in domains such as transportation, waste and water management and energy services. When all goes as it should, these partners join their city clients in providing open access to the data they generate. But, this does not always happen. Sometimes cities have to take action to ensure they have access to the data generated through such partnerships for their own internal use, and for making data available to the public as open data.

At the April 2016 Socitm conference, Peter Wheeler, an account manager at the software firm Red Hat, reported hearing many city officials complain that they face “a huge battle” in getting data they required from software vendors responsible for some smart-cities initiatives. His advice, echoed by many others, is that cities must mandate openness from the outset by insisting on access to all data in new procurement contracts.

Wheeler cautions, however, against exercising that access right unless there is a clear use case for the data in order to avoid overburdening city systems. This makes sense if the city and the vendor are the only consumers of the data, but with the right technology, making that data open does not have to be a financial burden on the city. In fact, it can be a boon, and opening it can allow businesses and civic technology developers to find innovative uses for it that the city might not otherwise discover. This fulfills the promise of open innovation.

One scenario in which open sensor data can be a financial gain rather than a burden is in the monetization of data streams. Traditionally, as the Open Data Institute articulates it, open data has been defined as data “that anyone can access, use and share,” and “it must be published in an accessible format, with a license that permits anyone to access, use and share it.”

While in this classic definition, open data must be free, accessible, and licensed for open re-use, as smart city data goes online, cities and their ecosystem partners have begun to consider shades of open, such as freemium access that offers basic access for free, but premium fee-based access for high-volume usage.

Consider different shades of open

The first reason for this is cost. Streaming senor data is ‘big data,’ and handling big data carries an infrastructure and access cost – a cost which public agencies have to be able to cover to provide access. This is the position taken, for instance, by the Paris regional transit service (RATP) and the French national rail service (SNCF) []. Both provide open access now to a range of transportation data ( and, including in the case of SNCF, access to real-time departure and arrival data, though at present with a usage limit. And, both plan to offer high-volume access to such real-time data using a freemium model.

They argue that providing reliable, high-volume access to the streaming data carries a significant cost that can be borne only through premium access, and it’s a cost the large corporations who are most interested in that data can afford to pay. For them, distributing these costs to such heavy data users helps ensure free access can be maintained for civic technologists and start-ups who develop citizen-centric applications that support local economies, improve citizens’ lives, and help all make more efficient use of public services.

The second rationale for freemium models is the growing realization in all sectors that data is an asset with real economic value. For cities, that value can be tapped as a new revenue stream to help support smart city initiatives or meet basic budgetary needs. This is the rationale posited by the Buckinghamshire County Council in the UK. They are exploring options for monetizing their flows of smart city data as a way to make up for shortfalls in the face of “ever-increasing budget cuts.” David Aimson, Project Manager at Buckinghamshire County Council, believes other cities will follow suit: “By the very nature of being publicly funded we are not historically commercial organisations,” however, he adds “over the next decade you are going to see councils turning more into businesses.”

While data monetization is at too early a stage to determine how significant that stream may be, it is nonetheless an area of growing interest to cash-strapped cities; one that needs to be approached with careful consideration of technical, financial and governance issues, including very important issues of public trust and protection of citizen privacy.

However, regardless of whether a city decides to offer access on a freemium or fully free basis, and whether it wants to open data from existing systems, or from newly deployed Internet of Things sensor networks, or from crowdsourced mobile phone data, access has to be made available in a way that supports application development. That means it needs to be available through standardized, efficient Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), and that cities must incorporate access rights into vendor contracts to give themselves maximum flexibility in transforming data into value for their communities.

Check back in next week for Strategy 5, which discusses two must-have technologies for succeeding with open sensor data. You can also download the complete five-part series.

Delivering on Digital

‘Delivering on Digital’

I finished Bill Eggers latest book, “Delivering on Digital: The Innovators and Technologies That Are Transforming Government,” and highly recommend to public sector technology practitioners, especially governments who don’t have the resources to contract with a high-end consulting firm to build out a holistic strategy on their own.

Photo: U.S. Navy

DISA kicks off overhaul of federal background checks

The Defense Information Systems Agency has released a series of videos and request for information for the National Background Investigation System, created in the wake of security incidents that lead to data breaches of millions of federal government employees and contractors.

Railway station of Dehradun, Uttarakhand, India. Photo by Lennon Rodgers CC-BY-SA-3.0-migrated-with-disclaimers

Driving smart city innovation with open sensor data (part 3)

An odd thing happened in Dehradun, the capital city of the northern state of Uttarakhand, when the city received news that it would receive funding as one of 100 cities chosen to participate India’s $15 billion Smart Cities Mission. Rather than celebrating making the coveted list, the city instead found itself embroiled in a dispute that saw local activists take to the woods to hug trees in protest against Dehradun’s smart city proposal.

President Barack Obama greets His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the entrance of the Map Room of the White House, June 15, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Transforming government without ego

Many of us are attracted to practices that move us towards that place of intense joy that comes from being present. In my field, technology, both Free and Open Source development and agile practices have offered me, and many others, a path towards a similar joy.

Place de la Nation

Driving smart city innovation with open sensor data (part 2)

You can accomplish many smart city goals in a timely and inexpensive manner by exploring options for leveraging an existing infrastructure of low-tech, collaborative information and communication technologies like mobile phones, social media, online platforms and low-cost sensor kits, before making hefty new technology investments.

City at night

Driving smart city innovation with open sensor data

For many years, open access to data has been viewed as an important means of improving government transparency and accountability and deepening citizen engagement, and today hundreds of local and national governments worldwide are using open data portals to publish data and documents that they produce over the course of their operations.

Photo: Code for America

Hack civic hacking

For those of you who identify as civic hackers and are unaffiliated with political, governmental or corporate constraints, you have the good fortune of not needing to adhere to bureaucratic, organizational rules that stunt open, immediate impact and innovation.

Pokémon Go

Pokémon Go(vernment)

For those focused on civic technology, Pokémon Go shatters the notion that an application whose brand and sole objective is civic-focused may never be as powerful and well-used as one tied into one with a consumer focus.