Category Archives: Government Apps

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!

Chief Digital Officer for NYC – Roadmap to a Digital City Video

Rachel Sterne
Here is Rachel Sterne, NYC’s Chief Digital Officer, discussing a four-point plan for advancing technology in NYC. The four points—which are useful for any city government—are as follows:

  1. Access to technology, e.g., expanding the access to wireless Internet
  2. Open government, e.g., sharing more information with developers
  3. Engagement, e.g., using more social media, specifically Twitter, Youtube, and Tumblr
  4. Industry, e.g., welcoming start-ups and engaging developers
In the video, from October 2011, she shares examples of each goal.

Featured Website: OpenPlans

OpenPlans.org is a nonprofit organization generating open-source software designed to use data to improve city transportation, among other things. It has received quite a bit of media attention recently, including this recent article by Arianna Huffington, spotlighting the organization’s efforts to equip NYC with a real-time-tracking system for city buses. But as the group points out on its website, it has been at this for a decade and has a bevy of initiatives and projects, all aimed at open data or transportation systems.

The diversity of projects is impressive; I’ll highlight three of many. First, the organization is a leader in developing and promoting standards for open 311 data. Second, the organization—working primarily with NYC agencies—is busy creating tools for cities, such as this Bike Share Map, that are all open-source, so they can be adopted by other cities at minimal expense. Finally, there is Streetfilms.org, a project that generates “short films showing how smart transportation design and policy can result in better places to live, work and play.”

It’s a great project, and I encourage you to check it out.

Code for America 2012 annual report – Heroes of Gov. 2.0

Today, I want to feature the annual report for Code for America, an amazing new program (modeled after Teach for America) that gives $35,000 to programmers willing to spend a year working on projects for a particular metro area. Tim O’Reilly has called these programmers the heroes of the new data-driven government movement.

The report profiles three projects in detail: Boston, Philadelphia, and Seattle. It also includes a two-page spread listing the fellows’ projects for the year. There are 21 of them, and I encourage you to check them out, if for no other reason than to learn about and encourage this great program. Two of my favorites are a program that cities can you to more-easily translate their 311 calls into usable data—called Open 311—and an app that gives you directions by listing all the different modes of transportation you can use and compare the time, cost, health, and environmental impact—called reroute.it.

NASCIO Tech Innovation Award Videos

Flag-map of OregonToday’s Wednesday Video is a promotion video done by Oregon about their open-data website for the 2011 National Association of State Chief Information Officers Technology Innovation Awards. I think that it rightly celebrates the advances they’ve made, highlighting the praise it’s received from Oregon residents and outside groups (particularly transparency advocates). It also highlights many of the popular datasets available. You can check out other Innovation Award videos through Youtube.

County Holds Online Auctions


Michigan Radio recently ran an interesting story about a county in Michigan that is using an online auction to buy supplies. Taking bids for
government supplies is nothing new, but the technology involved here allows the county to get supplies from a much broader group of potential sellers than might otherwise be involved.

Here’s the scoop from an article by Lindsey Smith:

When Kent County needs office supplies, like printer paper, it opens an auction online. It lists a maximum price it’s willing to pay based on previous bills. Vendors offer to sell the county printer paper at that price or lower.

The auction runs in real time so businesses can name a lower price if they’re outbid. The auction may last an hour or so but if there are last minute bids the time will extend. After ten minutes go by with no new offers, the lowest bid gets the county’s business.

“It’s so simple but I mean getting to where we got it took like 3 and a half years to build the foundation,” Kent County Administrator/Controller Daryl Delabbio said. The program has saved Kent County more than $200,000 in 2 years. The county has used it to buy office supplies, paper towels, soap for the county jail, even a car.

Only about an hour seems like a pretty efficient system. That it took 3 years to develop may suggest the county needs a better method for developing new technologies. But they said they were trying to avoid the cost of paying a larger corporation for the service. Thankfully, the county is now hosting auctions for other cities for free. Here’s a link to the auction website.