Can City Apps Bring Transparent Data to Jersey City’s Citizens?

Technological advances are affecting how citizens are interacting with their city governments, as transparency, efficiency and cost-savings become the guiding principles in municipalities today. As more and more cities open their data to the public, tech-savvy individuals and companies are creating APIs (application programming interfaces) to provide Web 2.0 solutions for a variety of city issues. How might this technological development help Jersey City’s citizens better access and understand their government, all while saving the city money?

In its simplest form, a City API or app can be a descriptive list of a set of functions that are included in a government database and address a specific problem. For example, in a city with a traffic-light problem, a resident might typically call the public works or transportation department. Those calls take time and cost money when addressed by staff members you reach by phone. But with an API, a city could permit its residents to upload photos or videos of specific traffic light issues, vote on which ones should be addressed with urgency and view progress updates over time, for free. This could be done from smartphones with stand-alone apps or directed to a specific website for public perusal.

To take another example, crime reports — if standardized — can be useful to local citizens and tourists. When combined with pedestrian information pertaining to traffic via subways, sidewalks, and bars, they become a more robust source of data to determine the safest route home after a night out.

In Washington, D.C., StumbleSafely makes that possible. This app highlights the creativity that cities are hoping to mobilize by turning over large chunks of data to programmers and the public to integrate into APIs.

StumbleSafely “was built over the course of 2 days” by a few developers, as part of an “Iron Chef style competition” D.C.’s technology office held, according to Ian Cairns, a project manager at Development Seed who was part of StumbleSafely’s development team. “The contest was designed to help inspire people to create new applications for the city’s data sets, which had recently been made public in relatively open electronic formats.”

In D.C., the apps competition was led by Vivek Kundra, who has been lauded for his leadership in the open-data movement (he now works in the Obama administration as the federal government’s Chief Information Officer). Advocates say that city app programs often need such high-level support and leadership to become a reality, since decisions about the release of data is often made at the highest levels of any government, be it city, state or federal.

That can be a daunting, and often uncomfortable, proposition for governments who are used to controlling information. “It’s going to change the way elected officials and civil servants deliver programs, services and promises,” San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom told the New York Times about that city’s release of massive amounts of data. “I can’t wait until it challenges and infuriates the bureaucracy.”

Indeed, the idea of “free access” to government data might seem contrary to the common notion of government as a guarded citadel. But that’s the premise behind for Code for America (CFA), a new nonprofit organization backed by Tim O’Reilly (the man who popularized the term “Web 2.0”). In 2011, CFA will provide Web 2.0 solutions to five local governments in the U.S. to develop their own API solutions, and a good number of cities are competing in hopes of being the chosen few.

CFA is just the latest organization in a growing Government 2.0 movement sweeping the country. It joins the ranks of websites like and innovative contests like NYC BigApps, where citizen teams and developers create shared applications using public-sector data. Winners win cash prizes and their APIs are essentially “endorsed” by the New York City government.

“There is a tremendous amount of innovation that occurs when you give the data to the public,” says Brandon Kessler, CEO of ChallengePost and lead organizer of NYC BigApps. He says programs like his generally need leadership from the mayor’s office to be successful, whether in New York City or in our fair burg across the Hudson.

“[Jersey City] likely has a lot of data that it is collecting, and it would need a simple data policy which encourages the public release of that information in open, accessible formats,” Kessler says. He says that open-data APIs can help the city save money (by relying on what is essentially free labor to develop service applications), “make a bureaucracy more transparent, accessible and accountable,” and help market a municipality as “a tech-savvy, innovation-friendly city.”

Valerio Luccio, president of the local good-government group Civic JC, thinks Jersey City is a prime candidate for open-data development. But, like Kessler, he thinks it would require “top-down” action — something he doesn’t see happening any time soon.

“Unfortunately, in Jersey City this type of initiative would not be viewed favorably by the current administration,” Luccio says, adding that he thinks the mayor’s office is more concerned with “programs that better position those in power” rather than “the long-term benefits of an open-source campaign they don’t understand.”

For its part, the mayor’s office tells us no one has brought up the idea.

“Currently, we do not have any API work being done through our office,” reads a statement issued by Nancy McCarthy, the assistant to the mayor’s press secretary. “It is not something that we have looked into, and to the best of my knowledge, we have not been approached by any developers looking to do this sort of thing.”

As a work-around, Luccio feels that approaching some of the larger employers in Jersey City might get the attention of City Hall.

“Enlist one of the major corporations to buy into an app program, like Merrill Lynch and/or Goldman Sachs, and have them sell the idea to the city officials,” he says. “Since these firms are constantly looking to hire and retain qualified professionals, if one or both of those firms took a leadership role, it could help position the city as a technologically advanced environment to work and reside in.”

Daniel Levin, who leads the political group One Jersey City and ran for mayor last year, sees the situation a bit differently.

“While firms like Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch are important economic infusions for the city, they are still guided by self-interest and the approvals requisite by city government to further their own initiatives,” he says. “There are no civic pillars in the city like education, tourism or the arts that can take the lead here.” The controlling interest in Jersey City, he adds, “was and still remains ‘the government’ itself.”

In most cities, getting to the source of the data leads to the office of the City Clerk. In Jersey City, that office is headed up by longtime clerk Robert Byrne. As the go-to person for all things data, Byrne is well-respected by civic leaders and government officials as a fair arbiter of public information. Under the state Open Public Records Act (OPRA), Byrne’s office processes data requests for the public on a daily basis.

But while Byrne’s office can execute data requests, it doesn’t make decisions as to what data to make public and open to third-party developers or to publish in a web data-mine similar to the NYC Data Mine. Those decisions would come out of the mayor’s office.

If data from the city were to be released to developers, it would likely help fix what advocates say is a central problem of municipal data — organization. Both Levin and Luccio point out that while it’s not that difficult to obtain information, there’s no standardized and easily searchable format for a lot of government data, like City Council voting records or records related to tax abatement applications and approvals.

As StumbleSafely developer Ian Cairns notes, these are familiar hurdles.

“Identifying relevant data and getting data online can be a big task,” he says. “Since the problem is not strictly a technical one – cleaning it up and organizing it, plus setting up future data collection with sharing in mind — it is difficult.”

In many cities, those from the old guard who may be fearful of transparency and don’t know how to open up data in an organized fashion are the initial stumbling blocks. Increasingly, however, they successful case studies — dealing with everything from bike routes to building permits to crime — from around the country to learn from. According to Development Seed president Eric Gundersen, apps like StumbleSafely can become effective tools with far-reaching ramifications beyond their original intent.

After StumbleSafely won an award through D.C.’s contest, the development team learned that the city’s police force was using the app’s mapping capability to better visualize crime hot spots near bars and allocate resources to the specific places and times of day when they were most needed and would be most effective.

“This was a great example of a positive externality coming from open data,” Gunderson says. He likens this case to when “the beekeeper inadvertently [helps] pollinate the farmer’s crops in his quest for a jar of honey.” In the same way, open data can elicit many benefits for taxpayers and city officials above and beyond its original intention.

Of course there is a downside to too much transparency. Privacy is always an issue that needs to be protected, as became apparent when New York City accidentally released some personal data when first unveiling its Data Mine. In addition, allowing citizens channels for open feedback could potentially produce a flood of unfocused comments that soak up staff time and run the risk of becoming counter-productive.

However, in a city the size and importance of Jersey City, it makes a lot of sense to engage with third party developers to start the necessary work now — to help us discern the types of programs that make the most sense for the citizenry.

City apps are not a passing fad and it would be in the city’s best interest to engage with this emerging technology. This kind of innovation is increasingly becoming a standard by which cities like Jersey City are judged when future employers, residents, real estate developers and corporations consider relocating here. In addition to expediting access to cost-efficient data retrieval, city apps could also go a long way to improve the city’s image for the many that only view our Jersey City through the prism of corruption and the political machine.

Whether the means is designing contests like NYC BigApps, petitioning the mayor’s office, engaging civic involvement from large corporations or starting a grassroots effort from volunteer groups, the end is the same goal: moving Jersey City into the 21st Century.

Ron Callari

is a social media consultant and contributing writer for InventorSpot, and editorial cartoonist for the online kidd millennium cartoon series. He is the published author of Crude Behavior, Uncle Dubya's Jihad Jamboree and the just-released graphic novel Facebucks & Dumbs F*cks. He resides at Society Hill in Jersey City.