Low-cost technology for emergency managers

My friend Shahrzad Rizvi, along with co-author Joshua Kelly, recently published an article in Public Management Magazine titled “Communicating Emergency Information on a Budget.” The article covers low-cost ways for emergency managers to connect with their communities. It highlights social media, new types of alert systems, and free online mapping of public safety concerns. The article includes links to some of these new tools, so I encourage you to check it out.

Efforts to make a smarter Honolulu

Honolulu is, somewhat surprisingly, the 10th largest municipality in the United States. IBM is working with the local government to update its technology—to “build a smarter Honolulu,” as they would say. Here is an interesting video on efforts to provide data to citizens, and the results from those efforts, namely, citizen-created apps. A bus-tracker app is mentioned, and similar apps have been developed in other cities (there are enough apps tracking the CTA in Chicago that it has created, as Jacqui Cheng put it, a “battle of the CTA bus trackers“). The tsunami app is, however, more unique.

Chicagoans can now complete most 311 tasks by text

As covered by Government Technology, Chicago has upgraded the ChiTEXT component of its 311 system to allow citizens to complete most 311 tasks via text. Texts will prompt a series of scripted questions to better identify the problem: For a pot hole, for example, you may get asked if it’s near a curb line or looks like a sinkhole.

Perhaps the most interesting feature is that 311ers can track online their ticket’s progress as it moves through the city’s internal departments. This service is unique to Chicago, says the city’s CTO.

Best of all, use of the technology added no costs, because it was already included as a feature by Motorola, the city’s customer-service vendor. Kudos to Chicago for making strides toward more open and efficient government!

Urbanflow’s view of a touchscreen-filled data-driven city – Video Wednesday

This week’s video is a fun one; it’s a concept video about Urbanflow, a collaboration between a NYC-based design company Urbanscale and Finnish designers Nordkapp. They want touchscreens everywhere in Helsinki, so the public can access maps and transit info, interact with each other, and report municipal concerns like potholes. John Pavlus has raised some concerns about their plan—you can read his view here—but for now, just enjoy their beautiful visualization of the data-driven city of the future (after the jump).

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Featured Website: Random Hacks of Kindness and Sheltr

Today I want to highlight a great project that showcases the potential for technology to change city life for the better. Random Hacks of Kindness (or RHoK) is as an initiative started in 2009 by Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, NASA, and the World Bank that hosts app contests aimed at the more social-justice side of open data. (It was originally aimed at disaster and crisis response, but as they say on their site, they’re “always looking for new problems to work on.”) So far, they’ve hosted 3 worldwide events in 31 cities, engaging more than 3,000 participants. All projects developed during their events are required to be released under an open-source license. Here’s a link to their blog.

I’ll highlight one example of an app developed at a RHoK event: Sheltr, an app developed at the December 2011 RHoK contest in Philadelphia that recently won GovFresh’s Award for “Best Social Services App” of 2011. Sheltr is a mobile app that provides information about resources for the homeless in Philadelphia, including intake centers, places to get meals, and places to sleep. Their goal is to categorize this information so that it is easily accessible to community members and service providers. The problem is outlined on the project’s website: “Currently there is no way to gauge real-time availability of food and shelter services for these disparate groups. The Philly Sheltr Project establishes consolidated baseline information (service availability), contact for intake centers, and specific instructions to access resources.”

Hopefully, the Sheltr project will spread to new cities soon. I knew some homeless advocates in Atlanta, and this project would have been a big help to them. They gave volunteers hardcopy lists of shelters and meal sites, but the lists had to be constantly updated and redistributed to volunteers. This project would make it a lot easier not only to update the list but also to distribute it throughout the community.

Kudos to RHok, Sheltr, and all the other hackers working for the public good!