This paper examines the history of open data and the evolution of local and national competitions of mobile application development. Designers and experts in the field provide insight on the initial short-comings of prize-driven exercises. Successful models that move past first generation limitations are expounded. New open data application development sites provide new platforms that provide feedback loops, along with sharable, free, and open source code, all of which are considered a key to long-term sustainability of civic applications.
Keywords: Generative space, Recursive depth, Civic engagement, Civic hackathons
H. G. Wells was an author, a scientist, and someone who predicted the way the world could be way back before there were television sets, computers, or complex surveillance systems that orbited the earth via satellite. H. G. saw possibility in tandem with small changes in order for our world to become great, but he also saw the way the world was simultaneously in the throes of utopian and dystopian societies. Author of The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, Wells studied biology and Darwin’s theory of evolution, and much of his life’s work confronted questions of how man would creatively adapt and evolve in order to improve himself. “On 4 January, 1902, Wells gave a lecture at the Royal Institute in London, titled ‘The Discovery of the Future’” (Online-literature, 2015). What he said then is interchangeable with what he would have said just yesterday if he were still around today.
We are in the beginning of the greatest change that humanity has ever undergone. There is no shock, no epoch-making incident; but then there is no shock at a cloudy daybreak. At no point can we say, “Here it commences – and now, last minute was night and this is morning.” But insensibly we are in the day. If we care to look, we can foresee growing knowledge, growing order, and presently a deliberate improvement of the blood and character of the race. And what we can see and imagine gives us a measure and gives us faith for what surpasses the imagination.
It is possible to believe that all the past is but the beginning of a beginning, and that all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn. It is possible to believe that all that the human mind has ever accomplished is but the dream before the awakening.
We cannot see; there is no need for us to see what this world will be like when the day has fully come. We are creatures of the twilight. But it is out of our race and lineage that minds will spring that will reach back to us in our littleness to know us better than we know ourselves, and that will reach forward fearlessly to comprehend this future that defeats our eyes. All this world is heavy with the promise of greater things, and a day will come – one day in the unending succession of days – when beings, beings who are now latent in our thoughts and hidden in our loins, will stand upon this earth as one stands upon a footstool, and laugh, and reach out their hands amidst the stars. (Wells, 1913)
Recent changes in how information is shared has helped to expediently provide our society with tools that will propel us to a reality beyond our current baseline. When we see a thing, we must first have access to the resources to gain the thing. That is to say, if a person simply thinks about a thing, she cannot simply will it into being. If I envision a piece of chocolate cake, I must either muster enough will to leave my house and drive to the grocery store, or maybe call a friend to help me uncover this rock I’ve been hiding under so that I can roll the stone away with some assistance. After the removal of said boulder, I can then flee on foot to the nearest exit and move along with my cake procurement goals. We’ll hopefully circle back to that piece of cake soon.
In 2009, President Obama passed a measure that made free and open large collections of information. The President signed the “Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government.” The act encouraged government departments to provide open data sets to the public. Such pieces of information included everything from “real-time crime feeds to test scores to air-quality metrics” (Melissa, Almirall, & Wareham, 2016). However, by May 2010, nary a person had delved into the more than 272,000 datasets (Melissa, et. al 2016).
Out of local and federal initiatives sprung competitions that helped spread awareness of the need for using open data in creative ways. “Governments have positioned civic hackathons as an effort to engage the public in two ways; first the hosting of a participatory event, and second, through the creation of new apps designed for citizen use, based on government open data (Johnson & Robinson, 2014).
Jake Levitas is a community organizer and founder of Our City, a non-profit organization that empowers people “to build the future of their communities” (Levitas, 2016). In 2013, Levitas defined the term civic hacking as “the act of quickly improving the processes and systems of local government with new tools or approaches, conducted with cities, by citizens, as an act of citizenship” (Johnson & Robinson, 2014). “Civic hacking is the new civic engagement – and it’s here to stay” (Johnson & Robinson, 2014).
Civic hackathons provide an immediate incentive to developers to construct something meaningful from the data. “According to a 2009 McKinsey report, the number of innovation competitions with prize purses of more than $100,000 has risen more than three-fold from about 100 prizes in 2000, to over 300 in 2009” (Desouza & Bhagwatwar, 2012). “Government agencies have adopted this ‘prize for innovation’ template to solve problems ranging from medical industry problems to complex space challenges, with prizes ranging from $75,000 to $50 million” (Desouza & Bhagwatwar, 2012). “The four main uses of prize-based competitions in the public sector are for developing new technologies, leveraging R&D investments, promoting entrepreneurship, and raising awareness of problems and solutions through community engagement” (Desouza & Bhagwatwar, 2012).
In a 2014 article in Review of Policy Research, Peter Johnson and Pamela Robinson discuss the hopes vs. reality of this new movement. “Civic hackathons tap into the current zeitgeist of social innovation and entrepreneurship by connecting civically minded hackers and coders to governments seeking to present a more open, transparent, and connected face to their citizenry” (Johnson & Robinson, 2014).
Despite efforts early on, there was an ever-present disconnect between our realities and open data. Johnson and Robinson find that the one-time “limited event” may not truly “enrich citizen-government relationships” (Johnson & Robinson, 2014). “[T]hough money was never refused, most developers believed the amount was not enough to provide application support, maintenance, and sustainability over time” (Melissa, Almirall, & Wareham, 2016).
As Jonathan McKinney of Cab Corner, an app providing a cab-sharing utility, said, ‘Our reason for participating is to be recognized enough to get serious funding. Not $10,000 or $20,000, but someone who will give you a quarter of a million dollars or so and really get involved and bring more people in. The prize money is not a game changer. The real reward is when someone calls you out of the blue and says they have real venture capital for you. Then you can get things done. (Melissa, Almirall, & Wareham, 2016)
A 2016 article in Communications of the ACM outlines the limits of computer app competitions. “Early initiatives suffered from a lack of civic benefit, in both government and the public” (Melissa, Almirall, & Wareham, 2016). “Though efforts were made to open data throughout all types of government, developers tended to incorporate only a small range of it, including overuse of certain datasets” (Melissa, Almirall, & Wareham, 2016). “Even within the datasets that did receive attention, developers often failed to envision solutions that would greatly complement provision of municipal services” (Melissa, Almirall, & Wareham, 2016). As a result of contests in Amsterdam, 12% of apps were created to foster tourism (Melissa, Almirall, & Wareham, 2016). Lack of public knowledge and the inability for people to understand the value of civic applications were some contributions to apps being created to serve a consumer market over community improvement (Melissa, Almirall, & Wareham, 2016). Betsy Scherzer, an organizer of New York City’s Big Apps contest, explained the disconnect:
I think a lot of it depends on what developers are interested in and what seems useful. For example, we get a lot of data from the Office of Management and Budget. That data does not match or lend itself easily to apps. Not too many people want a municipal budget app. (Melissa, Almirall, & Wareham, 2016)
A 2015 article in Information Polity discusses international challenges with open data. In countries without government-driven competition projects, businesses struggle to find meaning in open data. “In Sweden a study found a number of barriers (18 in total) to open data innovation and to the development of viable services using open data (Susha, Grönlund, & Janssen 2015). Similarly, in the Netherlands an article in a national newspaper voiced concerns over lower-than-expected rates of open data adoption and signaled the end of the hype stage in open data (Susha, Grönlund, & Janssen 2015). These countries have been ranked in the top ten by various open data indices, including Open Data Barometer and Global Open data Index (Susha, Grönlund, & Janssen 2015).
Part of the limitation is the expectation that the applications will render a profit. Compounded with this search for funding is a lack of sustainable public interest (Susha, Grönlund, & Janssen 2015). For example, if there is a useful civic application that serves public good, but either no one knows about it or no one is willing to pay for a subscription, the front-end, business-driven financiers will not see a return on investment, thus making these projects unattractive to prospective backers (Susha, Grönlund, & Janssen 2015). The money, data, and public interest problems will hopefully improve by second and third generations of iterated projects.
The major lack of public interest is easy to explain when one considers the way that most information gets to the greater public through mass media consumption or through radio jingles, TV commercials, and Internet pop-up ads. Despite all our deepest desires to know, one’s ignorance may be the muslin curtain that separates a person from the cataract of not knowing. Short of spelling it out for you, sometimes the wizard must pull back the drapes to reveal an enlightenment of sorts.
A hopeful example of improving consumer participation is the idea of inclusion. In an article in National Critic Review, Thomas Bryer exemplifies the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Facebook page as a successful model of civic engagement. There is a posting policy that encourages users to be concise, respectful, and relevant. The result is an elevated experience, wherein the user creates a civic-minded post, and more people contain their responses within that style of communication (Bryer, 2013). The MTA Facebook page provides a live feed of user questions and comments, and project administrators respond by posting follow up comments (Bryer, 2013). Users also contribute to the open data by inputting their immediate experiences online. For example, if the train is running on time, participants submit their “on time” ride, and the information is used in the data set (Bryer, 2013). The idea of immediate feedback, coupled with users being vital to the process, may be a winning formula to robust improvements in online civic participation.
A 2014 article of The Information Society analyzes the ideal environment for civic applications to flourish. Ron Eglash and David Banks, department heads of Science and Technology studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, say the space for future programs to take hold happens in something called a generative space (Eglash & Banks, 2014). Generative space is the network of digital devices and human ingenuity that allows freedom of innovation (Eglash & Banks, 2014). Three correlates for generative spaces include open source software, virtual-material value, and social power (Eglash & Banks, 2014). Open source software often means that one can play around with the program, easily re-create the code, change the program, and share it with others openly (Eglash & Banks, 2014). This makes it easy to connect other people to and means that the information will not be isolated from people, but rather it will be available in communities to be shared, used, and improved by citizens.
The second part, virtual-material, means that something is accessible by online as well as offline. This might take the form of a community garden that has its own Twitter feed. People can Tweet when they arrive at the garden to water it. There is an online record of the space and how people use it, as well as the actual physical space itself. The third variable for success of generative spaces is social power, or the extent to which people may be transformed (Eglash & Banks, 2014). Within these three correlates of generative spaces, there may be varying levels of recursive depth.
Within generative spaces, one may find recursive depth. Recursion “can be generally defined as a circular flow of information” (Eglash & Banks, 2014). One can think of this idea in terms of a “self-sustaining community,” “positive feedback loop,” or a “public that is vitally concerned with the material and practical maintenance and modification of the technical, legal, practical, and conceptual means of its own existence as a public” (Eglas & Banks, 2014).
Application repositories, or marketplaces, provide a venue for civil servants or developers for sourcing existing solutions. The Civic Commons is such a marketplace, created to facilitate code sharing (http://theciviccommons.com/). This collection of civic apps promotes their use and reuse, providing value capture for developers as their markets increase and savings for cities as they choose to adapt, rather than create, completely new solutions. (Melissa, Almirall, & Wareham, 2016)
Another example of generative space is Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (NUM), an internal agency with strong management of its open data initiatives (Melissa, Almirall, & Wareham, 2016).
NUM invites all actors to report their needs and suggestions for improvement, including citizens, government employees, academic institutions, nonprofit organizations, and private businesses. NUM then evaluates them based on their potential for improving civic services, filtering them on targeted areas like urban development and education. NUM follows a five-to-seven-month timeline for development of solutions, whether for a mobile app or more complete business based on the technological solution. (Melissa, Almirall, & Wareham, 2016)
This format is a departure from early app competitions because it provides “lasting civic benefit, value capture, and solution sustainability” (Melissa, Almirall, & Wareham, 2016).
“One example of a NUM-developed app is Street Bump, which collects data about road conditions as users drive on the roads (http://www.streetbump.org/)” (Melissa, Almirall, & Wareham, 2016). Instead of using civil servants to examine each road, the app takes the cost and time otherwise deployed to government labor (Melissa, Almirall, & Wareham, 2016). The app sends the real-time data to the city, which then fills the pothole (Melissa, Almirall, & Wareham, 2016).
The compilation, maintenance, and repair of open data is useful and will continue to have value within generative space. With the ability to share, change, and reuse code, programs can connect to the needs of citizens. With social power, effective programs will have the capacity to transform the individual. This process of reaping the benefits of sustainable progress reminds me of the trimming of weeds from a garden. Even the weeds are needed to ply from the ground unwanted vegetation. This pruning primes plants to grow to the greatest version of themselves, strong, well-fed, and able to feed and nourish the population they serve.
Bryer, T. A. (2013). Designing Social Media Strategies for Effective Citizen
Engagement: A Case Example and Model. National Civic Review, 102(1), 43.
Bryer talks about the intersection of government services and social media. The author interprets the results from a study performed by the study of 55 projects that were either funded by the federal government or other projects in big cities. The survey weighs the theory that government service projects accompanied by social media sites improve the value of the project to the citizens. The ranking of each project was rated on the frequency of posts by the project, frequency of posts by citizens, frequency of project feedback to citizen posts, and quality of citizen comments. The authors conclude that the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Los Angeles’ Facebook page exemplifies winning strategies in implementation and participant policy. Their noted list of expectations on clarity, respect, and civility provide a penultimate example of best practices when combining social media and government services. Bryer suggests that expectations and policy on social media improves the quality of participants’ comments.
Desouza, K. C., & Bhagwatwar, A. (2012). Citizen Apps to Solve Complex Urban
Problems. Journal Of Urban Technology, 19(3), 107-136. doi:10.1080/10630732.2012.673056
Desouza and Bhagwatwar review the trends of citizen applications. Modern-day citizen apps use open source data and user feeds to update and enhance the effectiveness of the information. The article discuss the need for sustainability in the computer application prize-driven culture. Desouze and Bhagwatwar write that the prize incentives drive only temporary ideas for computer applications. Once the contest is finished the applications are not completed and some projects are completely abandoned. The authors conclude there needs to be more private funding of applications in order to promote long-term vitality of the programs.
Eglash, R., & Banks, D. A. (2014). Recursive Depth in Generative Spaces:
Democratization in Three Dimensions of Technosocial Self-Organization. Information
Society, 30(2), 106-115. doi:10.1080/01972243.2014.875775
Two professors at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute discuss the idea of open source software, online programs, and social power that are connecting points on a scale of effective computer programs that have a meaningful and lasting impact on citizens.
Johnson, P., & Robinson, P. (2014). Civic Hackathons: Innovation, Procurement, or
Civic Engagement?. Review Of Policy Research, 31(4), 349-357. doi:10.1111/ropr.12074
Johnson and Robinson discuss the ethical issues facing applications competitions. Among the moral dilemmas are reciprocity and proportionate compensation for the engineers, as well as the extent to which citizen engagement is enhanced or restricted by participation in computer application development contests. The authors examine if the civic apps help to eliminate the need for government-provided services. The article defines civic hacking as the new civic engagement.
Levitas, Jake. (2016) levitas.org.
Jake Levitas’ website provides links to his TedTalks and information about his non-profit Our City, which helps people to build community infrastructure through innovation and online connectivity.
Melissa, L., Almirall, E., & Wareham, J. (2016). Open Data and Civic Apps:
First-Generation Failures, Second-Generation Improvements. Communications Of The ACM,
59(1), 82-89. doi:10.1145/2756542
Melissa, Almirall, and Wareham analyze the history of open data and the subsequent race to develop civic applications. The authors reflect on the formula for computer application development competitions. Limitations of monetary compensation by way of reward are discussed. The authors conclude that private sector funding and small business investors are needed to finance applications for long term sustainability, maintenance, and support. The authors also discuss redundancies in engineering, misuse of data, the inability to use data to solve problems, and other shortcomings of the computer application design process. The article cites a contemporary civic organizer, Jake Levitas, as defining the term civic hacking as the new civic engagement.
Online-literature.com. (2015) H. G. Wells. Online-literature.com. Jalic Inc.
This page discusses the life and work of H. G. Wells. His young life as an impromptu author, formative years studying Biology and Darwin theory of evolution is examined. His books, essays, and associations are analyzed.
Susha, I., Grönlund, Å., & Janssen, M. (2015). Driving factors of service innovation
using open government data: An exploratory study of entrepreneurs in two
countries. Information Polity: The International Journal Of Government &
Democracy In The Information Age, 20(1), 19-34. doi:10.3233/IP-150353
The authors examine the creation and design of application in an employment setting. The limitations of application development are explored, as well as from a research and development perspective what extra work is needed in order to ensure success of long-running computer application lifespan. The authors note that a lack of motivation on the part of the user to use and continue using the app may cause otherwise innovative applications from surviving past its first year of implementation. Susha, Grönlund, and Janssen conclude that the user must be more carefully studied in order to maximize the effectiveness and lasting existence of application technology.
Wells, H. G. (1913). The discovery of the future.
This is a lecture that H. G. Wells recited to the Royal Institute in London. Wells outlines an idea of the slow progression of humans. H. G. talks about evolution: the steady, incremental procession that has been and the future trajectory of enlightenment that humans will enjoy in the years to come.