This Week in Civic Tech: Predicting Smog Levels with Data, $5 Million for Smart City Ideas, Philly Opens Property Data

A look back at highlights and happenings in the world of civic tech.

by / September 10, 2015
IBM hopes to reduce China's air pollution through big data analytics and smog forecasts. Flickr/Global Panorama

This Week in Civic Tech presents a lineup of notable events in the space that connects citizens to government services. Topics cover latest startups, hackathons, open data initiatives and other influencers. Check back each week for updates.

Predicting Smog Levels

China is infamous for its horrible air quality. Proof is seen in citizens outfitted in respirator masks, its opaque skylines and, more concretely, in recent sensor-based research estimating that the country’s pollution kills about 4,000 people each day — responsible for about 17 percent of all deaths in China.

To assist, MIT Technology Review reports that IBM is collaborating with the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau to create a predictive analytics system to forecast dangerous solution levels 72 hours before an incident.

Expectations intend for the system, labeled as Green Horizon, to eventually provide tangible recommendations to improve air quality to safe levels. Temporarily closing coal factories or regulating automobile usage are some examples for the solution that will eventually be advertised to jurisdictions worldwide.

Currently IBM reports prediction accuracy can approximate air quality within a kilometer and is 30 percent more precise than previous methods. The results all stem from IBM’s continuing investment in enterprise smart city technologies, but could foreseeably be adapted into open data solutions for civic developers who could make such insights more consumer friendly with apps. The initiative is part of China’s effort to curb its air pollutants by 10 percent by 2017.

$5 Million for Smart City Innovators  

The Knight Foundation is waving dollar bills at creatives, hoping they'll help to solve smart city problems. On Sept. 10 Carol Coletta, Knight’s vice president of community and national initiatives, announced the foundation’s second Knight Cities Challenge. The competition, accepting applications from Oct. 1-27, spreads $5 million across roughly 30 projects. Last year, the top three projects included a culinary startup incubator, conversion of a bus station into a local market and business incubator, and the installation of musical swings to promote community recreation.

Each of the submissions earned $650,000, $550,000 and $325,000, respectively; however, typical grants averaged about $138,000 with the lowest at $20,000. With that much money on the line, it's likely the competition will be highly competitive. Last year's challenge saw more than 7,000 applicants, and this year's entrants might safely assume that competition in this second iteration will only increase.

Coletta said Knight is hunting for solutions within the themes of talent, opportunity and engagement. Talent refers to cultivating college grads in communities; opportunity focuses on economic mobility and engagement targetes community collaboration.

Philly’s Homemade Data

Dodging and jumping over numerous technical and political hurdles, Philadelphia officials have finally released a comprehensive data set of all the city's property information. An article in Technical.ly Philly praised city Chief Data Officer Tim Wisniewski for his relentless effort to facilitate the massive open data release that went live last month. It similarly observed that progress was likely the result of a leadership change after Chief Assessment Officer Richie McKeithen stepped down in May 2014. Former CDO Mark Headd — now an open data Developer Evangelist at Accela — previously attempted the release, but attributed the hold up to objections from McKeithen and his team, who consistently declined such publication.

“We were ready to do it back then, and there was no substantive reasons raised at the time not to, but I could not get past the objections of [McKeithen], the former Office of Property Assessment director and others,” Headd told Technical.ly Philly.

Michael Piper, who replaced McKeithen after he stepped down, not only green-lighted the project, but also is championing the work as a needed public service. Key benefits to the property information will allow citizens to track properties by owner name (a much sought-after feature), see sales records, view neighborhoods by assessed market value and use a application programming interface to channel the data into apps.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.