New York City is using its BigApps competition to showcase an ambitious push to make its data publicly available—and become a digital powerhouse

Earlier this year, 96 New York City development teams competed for more than $50,000 in prize money by submitting apps based on 750 or so datasets from 63 agencies, retrieved through the cloud. One entry--the winner-- created an app to help developers understand and work with the information in all that data. Another provided a map for finding vacant acres of land to use for urban gardening. Yet another allowed users to research such information as performance ratings and addresses for pre-K and elementary schools. "I couldn't possibly have done this if the city hadn't opened up access to this data," says Edward Yau, a parent who created that last app, called Sage, which drew on information lodged in a Department of Education dataset.

In fact, the contest, called BigApps, was more than a mere competition. It also was a way to draw attention to New York's recent efforts to open its data to the public.

"We want to increase the transparency of government and empower developers and citizens to use city data to create apps that make the city  more user-friendly for people who live, travel, and work in New York," says Kristy Sundjaja, who heads the industry transformation team at the New York City Economic Development Corp.

More importantly, the competition was one piece of a larger puzzle, an ambitious plan officially laid out last year to turn New York City into a digital powerhouse and use cloud-based and mobile technology to accomplish a host of goals: provide access to data that wasn't available before, boost the burgeoning Web 2.0 tech industry, and make it easier for the public to communicate with city agencies via mobile or other devices about, say, potholes or slow snow removal, or to get information to residents (i.e. updates about last summer's Hurricane Irene).

Disqus: How do you think cities can best use technology to create a more open government?

The third annual BigApps competition, included several significant improvements over the first two. For starters, only about 150 datasets were ready for primetime during contest number one. Plus, this go around, the datasets were made available as APIs, in a variety of machine-readable formats. And information could be retrieved via the cloud, through a platform for federal, state and local governments interested in creating more open data.

For Joel Natividad, whose NYC Facet app won first prize, the BigApp competition provided a springboard for his own brand-new startup, Ontodia. Natividad, a software architect, quit his day job a week after the BigApps contest was announced last fall, and joined forces with a former colleague to devote himself full-time to developing an app. Their first intention was to build a "NYCpedia", which would be a more structured Wikipedia-like app for all the datasets available from the city. After a month, they realized they didn't have time to complete the project by the submission deadline.

So they took a different tack: addressing difficulties developers faced trying to extract data from the city's vast array of datasets by streamlining and simplifying the process for retrieving, understanding and using all that information.

"We're facilitating the quick digestion of this huge catalog of data," says Natividad. In addition, the app would store metadata across the entire universe of datasets and then rank them based on everything from how many people had downloaded the information to how often it was updated. The upshot: a low score could motivate appropriate city agencies to improve the quality of their data. 

Ultimately, however, Natividad wants to turn his venture into something more: a business intelligence service that would gather and curate data for different customers—say real estate developers who might want a company to monitor their properties, using data from the building department, to see if anyone had been awarded a permit to do unauthorized construction.

New York City is by no means the only place in the United States holding apps competitions, trying to create open data policies or using technology to improve communication between government and the public. Such cities as Philadelphia, Chicago and others also have initiated similar efforts. But thanks to its sheer size--everything from the amount of data to the number of residents and visitors--New York City's efforts are particularly ambitious.

"It's pretty impressive what they've accomplished," says Franklin Madison, director of technology programs for ITAC, a New York City-based organization that provides training and assistance to technology and manufacturing companies.

Of course, there's a long ways to go before most, or even much, of the city's vast array of data is made available to the public. Ultimately, there should be perhaps thousands of datasets accessible through the cloud.

"This is the tip of the iceberg," says Natividad. Achieving that goal could get a push from legislation recently passed by the City Council requiring all agencies to release data online over a portal in machine-readable format by 2018—in time, perhaps, for the tenth BigApps contest.


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About Anne Field

Anne Field has covered entrepreneurship and small business for the New York Times and Bloomberg BusinessWeek.