Need help: webifying city hall

November 16, 2008 § 18 Comments

In 10 days, I’m doing a lunchtime keynote for 300 councillors, tech staff and agency heads at the City of Toronto’s internal Web 2.0 Summit. Beltzner’s great Changing the World slides (warning: big) got my mind rolling on this talk. So, I started writing it up. My main point will be something like:

Openess and participation created a better internet. They can also create a better city.

The talk will start with the Firefox story, much along Beltzner’s ‘this is how we changed the world’ line. Then I’ll tour examples of people using open, participatory webishness to make cities better. This will feed into a set of simple, concrete challenges to the people who run my city.

open data; crowdsourcing; and listening.

Challenges to city hall: open data; crowdsourcing; and listening.

For this talk to rock, I really need help with the last two sections — the examples and the challenges.

On the examples front, I am looking for three very specific things:

  • Cities (or other governments) that have opened up their data so citizens can mash it up and add value.
  • Web apps created by normal people that do things city hall should do (e.g. transit maps), but do them better.
  • Examples of cities listening effectively to their citizens at a customer service level (i.e. whether people are happy with how clean the streets are).

A few people (thanks, Sameer!) have already fed me great examples. The City of Portland (first to have google transit thanks to open data). Washington, DC‘s recent useful-services-for-the-city mashup contest. But I need more. If you’ve got ’em, please comment on this post.

On the ‘challenges’ front, I want to come up with some concrete things city tech managers can do to make Toronto more open, participatory and mashable. I’m going to challenge them to:

  1. Open (y)our data. Transit. Library catalogues. Community centre schedules. Maps. Expose it all so the people of Toronto can use it to make a better city.
  2. Crowdsource info gathering that helps the city. I bet somebody would have up and running in a week if the Mayor promised to listen.
  3. Listen to citizens. Not just in a policy-consultation-ish kind of way, but also on everyday things-I-need-from-my-city customer service issues. First step: send a copy of the Cluetrain Manifesto to every manager in City Hall.

The City of Toronto CIO has promised more Web 2.0. That’s great. Maybe it’s the right time for challenges like these to actually be taken up. In any case, my question is: are these the right three things to push? If not, what would you ask for? Again, comments below encouraged.

§ 18 Responses to Need help: webifying city hall

  • Ricardo Proença says:

    Great Post, sincerely!!

    In the last two months I’ve been thinking along the same lines, specially about nº 2 – Crowdsourcing info gathering that helps the city.

    I already knew about but I think we need to extend the concept behind it and formalize it a little more.

    For me Fixmystreet is a very primitive version of a bug tracking system.

    Why? Because cities are like software and there is a parallelism of bugs in software and bugs in city.

    Take a look at the definition of software bugs at Wikipedia:

    A software bug (or just “bug”) is an error, flaw, mistake, failure, fault or “undocumented feature” in a computer program that prevents it from behaving as intended (e.g., producing an incorrect or unexpected result). Most bugs arise from mistakes and errors made by people in either a program’s source code or its design, and a few are caused by compilers producing incorrect code. A program that contains a large number of bugs, and/or bugs that seriously interfere with its functionality, is said to be buggy.

    Now substitute certain words with city, city’s regulation and design and you have this:

    A city bug (or just “bug”) is an error, flaw, mistake, failure, fault or “undocumented feature” in a city that prevents it from behaving as intended (e.g., producing an incorrect or unexpected result). Most bugs arise from mistakes and errors made by people in either a city’s regulations or its design, and a few are caused by regulations blueprints producing incorrect design. A city that contains a large number of bugs, and/or bugs that seriously interfere with its functionality, is said to be buggy.

    Isn’t this a very fortunate similarity? I think so because we are in need of a new tool for urban planning – CITY BUG TRACKING SYSTEMS.

    It’s very ironic that you brought this issue for discussion, because Mozilla already has one of best expertises in bug tracking pratices and a one of the best softwares for this (i.e. bugzilla.

    The challenge is how to model this for cities i.e. translate this expertise and software in a way that better suites urban planning.

    Currently I don’t know of any system with these characteristics being employed by any municiplaity.

    I’m willing to discuss this further if you want.

  • Christine says:

    Someone showed us this site at Webcamp Montreal. It the City of Melbourne’s wiki for their Future Melbourne project. From what I read online, citizens can edit, join discussions, participate in groups, and attend events:

  • Bram says:

    Mark, great thoughts. Toronto doesn’t seem to get the “open your data” idea quite yet. Take the TTC — it’s been racking it’s brains trying to be the best Web publisher and all-around media outlet it can be. But we don’t need the TTC to be a media outlet, and I doubt that that’s its core competency. We need it to push out its raw data in a well-specified standard. The rest is up to Torontonians.

    This lesson, writ large, is one that needs to be brought to municipalities’ attentions. It’s great that Toronto’s CIO wants to be all Web 2.0, but the idea scares me a bit. Open data should be the first priority; with data, applications are very crowdsourceable indeed. Toronto can certainly try and become a leading-edge Web developer, but that is a much harder and, I’d hope, slightly lower priority task.

  • There’s always and cities that have shared their transit data with Google to get Google Transit Maps.

  • This guy’s TTC transit maps/Google maps mashup should hit pretty close to home:

  • msurman says:

    Good points from Jay Goldman. Posting here for the record:

    • TransitCamp is a great local story about something that happened in Toronto. It shows how open works in the context of our city and what a big difference it makes. I’ve got a Keynote presentation all about it that I just delivered at ToRCHI’s World Usability Day event and can happily give you, though it’s 50MB so I might need to do that in person.

    • A great example that came out of TransitCamp is, which was built by a few guys from the TorCamp community. They couldn’t get the TTC to open an API to their data so they went and painstakingly built a full and accurate set of route, stop, and schedule data that you can now access on that site. They’ve even got a route planner, which is something the TTC still hasn’t got and is budgeting a lot of money to accomplish. Their data was recently made available to the guy who built the fantastic Red Rocket iPhone app, thereby further extending the awesome.

  • msurman says:

    @bram I agree re: broad push for opening data, and that fits with what the city should be thinking if it really means web 2.0 (which is like, citizen media and mashups, isn’t it?). One of my slides will be: “….if people at the city made it, it’s not web 2.0. Let the citizens do the innovating.” Of course, open data is essential if this kind of thing is going to happen.

  • msurman says:

    @ Ricardo: good point. If we can use Bugzilla to help the space shuttle, why not track city bugs. I am going to add bugzilla into my talk as a way to describe bug tracking at scale.

  • Geez, how do you get that gig. 🙂

    Some ideas:

    1. RSS Feeds For Municipal Data

    Everyblock —

    This is a for-profit advertising-based model, but it’s getting its RSS feeds from municipal sources. People should be able to subscribe to, and visualize, all permits types happening in their neighborhood and city. Data can also be used to monitor neighborhood indicators, showing where a neighborhood is about to ‘tip’ into decline. I remember a good anecdote about a city forming neighborhood groups to work towards stopping the ‘tips’ from happening. Will try to dig it up from my notes.

    Also see the Illinois Data Exchange Initiative – they have some nice usage examples, including neighborhood indicator watching:

    2. Recording & Streaming All Meetings

    This is big in California, where a for-profit company is doing the set-up. See the client list, here:

    3. Apps for Organizing People to Build Community Apps

    (Note: is also working on a model for this.)

    Another one, not focused on municipalities:

    4. BudgetMyStreet

    A random idea: FixMyStreet would be more interesting if users could allocate a budget of what to fix. Say, each person got $10 of fix money, which they had to pledge towards what ought to be fixed in their neighborhood. The most worrisome problems would then bubble to the top.

  • Update: The neighborhood indicator watch group I mentioned is in Baltimore. Here, the ‘Baltimore Neighborhood Indicator Alliance’ feeds statistics to local community groups:

    Also, I came across a fun story this morning on how Nanimo has fed all sorts of data to Google Earth in order to, among other things, help tourists get around better:,8599,1720932,00.html

  • France municipalities have the project, combining efforts to create free software.

  • Roger Eaton says:

    Mark, This is more in the line of dream works than you may be looking for, but please check for an example of software that would allow a dialog between the mayor of a city and the citizenry. The idea is simple. Citizens propose “candidate” messages and then elect one to send to the mayor. Mayor replies and citizens reply to mayor’s reply. The continuing dialog clues in the mayor to the needs of the city, and also allows an adept mayor to bring the city along on her more far-reaching policies.

  • I think a fourth would be to utilize all your brain power across gov’t agencies and the world. is an example of a social network where over 2,600 fed/state/local govies from across the world share ideas and best practices to improve gov’t. Stop reinventing the wheel, spread ideas, and share.

  • Project Votorola will be testing an open electoral system in Toronto. It aims at a better way of expressing public support for incumbent and candidate Councillors, Mayors, MPs, MPPs, and so forth. It will also open up City bylaws, plans and other norms to public voting.

  • Great opportunity Mark! I will second many of the examples in this thread, including the Melbourne strategic plan wiki.

    The story of TransitCamp, the TTC’s trip planner RFP and is a good one. If the TTC took the community’s recommendations and concentrated on creating and publishing good realtime routing data and then made it possible for any developer of services to build on top of that data, amazing things could happen. But unfortunately, IT RFPs are not written with mashups in mind.

    Any discussion of government, politics and web 2.0 must include an Obama reference. Check out the Obama transition site and its approach to soliciting citizen participation:

  • In Costa Rica the initiative “100 IDEAS PARA MEJORAR COSTA RICA” started by journalist aimed to gather 100 ideas from 100 citizens on how to better the nation. The idea was so popular, that the national newspaper stole the concept, launching an almost identical campaign on their site. The concept was started in France originally, and replicated by a newspaper in Spain. See links below!

  • […] much in the same way that it helped create a better Internet. In his truly open ways, he has been blogging about it, and has posted his speaker notes and draft slides online for […]

  • […] city that thinks like the web, slides + audio November 27, 2008 Thanks to everyone who pitched in with comments and ideas for my City of Toronto 2.0 Web Summit talk yesterday. The idea that we can […]

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