Fixing the Format

Because local governments use different data formats, creating a national app is a laborious process, said Joachim Pfeiffer, creator of TransiCast, an app that’s fed by several local open data programs to help citizens navigate public transit systems. That, combined with the fact that numerous governments still don’t offer open data, makes it difficult for these apps to get a profitable amount of traffic, said Pfeiffer. “It’s purpose-built to transit, and it has a very high level of adoption,” he said.

To solve the inconsistent data format concern, Pfeiffer would like all transit agencies to use the General Transit Feed Specification standard.

Corbett agrees that a national municipal open data format standard is necessary for creating sustainable applications, plus it would make creating nationally appealing applications much easier. The absence of a national standard was among the reasons iStrategyLabs wasn’t interested in developing apps in the government open data market.       

Apps for Democracy winner Eric Gundersen views data format inconsistency as less of an obstacle. If agencies post data that’s valuable enough, developers will be willing to iron out the format hassles, he said.

“The fact that some of the data that is being released is dirty and not easily used is a market opportunity,” Gundersen said.  “We will go in and we will process data and package it up in a way that makes it easier to access, and then we can sell that.”

Speaking of “dirty” data, a common frustration among developers who use open data is sloppy accuracy. Pfeiffer said that while transit agencies are usually reliable about updating their open data and screening it for accuracy, that wasn’t always the case with other types of agencies. He thinks many local agencies aren’t using software to check data automatically before posting it. Pfeiffer suspected some of these agencies were using tedious, manual processes that were difficult to continue consistently.

“Symptoms are, for instance, that there is a boom and bust cycle. There is a big initiative to open the data, and the website is being created and the government is excited about it,” Pfeiffer said. “As soon as the attention is off, the feeds are not necessarily perpetuated in terms of being updated frequently.”

Pfeiffer declined to name any of these agencies. “I don’t want to point a finger at agencies that are actually trying to make a good effort,” he said.


Shaun Farrell

APP: Park It DC

CONTEST: Apps for Democracy 2008

STATUS: Partly updated, partly no longer updated

In 2008, District of Columbia-based Web developer Shaun Farrell took a coveted Indie Silver award in the District’s Apps for Democracy contest for Park It DC. The app informs motorists of what parking meters are charging at any given time. In addition to detailed meter pricing, the app generated data about crime against automobiles near the various spots and meters awaiting repair. Park It DC was initially a browser-based app and for much of 2009 it thrived on the Web, but due to popular demand Farrell created an iPhone version after the contest. In 2009, Farrell met with research and development staff at the District’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) to discuss ideas for enhancing Park It DC. Farrell wanted to add data alerting users about when and where temporary parking wasn’t allowed due to construction and when and where rush-hour parking rules kept them from parking in certain areas. OCTO staffers appeared interested at first, Farrell said, but that seemed to wane.

“They seemed excited, but nothing ever kicked into gear,” he said.

In 2010, however, the district made drastic changes to the pricing structure for parking meters and expanded the time periods in which they charged. Some areas began charging until 10 p.m. instead of 4 p.m. Meters began charging on Saturdays, and prices rose in many locations. When Farrell attempted to upgrade Park It DC to reflect these changes, he found the data feeds had simply been removed on the government side.

“Everything was gone,” Farrell said. “There was no parking data, not even the initial feed I pulled from the data catalog.”

Farrell contacted OCTO to request a new data feed, but in late January 2010 when OCTO sent him updated meter data, it lacked the longitude and latitude coordinates necessary for plugging the data into Park It DC’s map. Farrell said further e-mail exchanges with OCTO didn’t produce much beyond that. He last communicated with OCTO in May 2010 when the agency expected another six to 12 months to pass before its contractor delivered the data feed. Parking meter data remains outdated on Park It DC, although the app still receives current data feeds on crimes against automobiles and meters awaiting repair.

For Apps for Democracy 2009, Farrell tried to follow up with his 2008 success with VacantDC, an app that displayed data on vacant properties in the district. The project didn’t place in the contest, but produced an unexpected benefit for some residents to contest property tax rates as a result of the district’s data feed sometimes falsely reporting their property as vacant. Properties in the district that go vacant for a certain period of time often have their property tax rates change. When occupants of those properties contacted Farrell to complain, he encouraged them to set the record straight directly with the city. The municipality’s mistake could have led to residents’ taxes being wrongfully changed, said Farrell. He no longer updates VacantDC, but it’s still on the Web.

These days, Farrell’s day job is as a Web development contractor for the Library of Congress. In the evenings, he works on Brewery DB, an online national database of beers and breweries. Farrell partnered on the project with two other developers in North Carolina. Brewery DB offers its data for free; its developers aim for users to offer their own data about beers and breweries. Farrell and his partners hope to use the data from Brewery DB for a suite of apps for the beer industry called PintLabs.

Brian Sobel

APP: iLive.at

CONTEST: Apps for Democracy 2008

STATUS: No longer updated

In 2008, Brian Sobel and two colleagues, Travis Hurant and Tim Koelkebeck, won the District of Columbia Apps for Democracy contest’s coveted Indie Gold award with iLive.at. The app helps a person planning a move to the nation’s capital learn about nearby businesses, crime reports and demographics by simply entering an address. Before the contest, Sobel had been working as a software development contractor for the FBI. After four years he burnt out and quit, beginning two years of what he called an “entrepreneurial break.”

“About halfway through that break I happened to be in the right place at the right time when D.C.’s Apps for Democracy was a big movement,” Sobel said.

At a happy hour event, he met the two colleagues who helped him create iLive.at. After winning the Indie Gold, Sobel and his partners were turned down by the district’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer to maintain iLive.at for the city on a contract basis. Unable to monetize iLive.at, the developers ceased updating the application, and in April 2009, Sobel joined federal IT contractor Ntrepid Corp. Sobel said the potential of open data “Gov 2.0” pursuits felt played out for him after the contest, given the limited data made available by governments.

“It isn’t cutting edge anymore for me,” he said.

With only some cities offering open data, often in disparate data formats, Sobel said taking iLive.at national wasn’t practical. “I went back to federal government contracting because it was lucrative.”

He said he considered his time in the open data Gov 2.0 realm exciting and an experience that gave him tools and contacts that would likely be valuable in the future. Sobel foresees open data continuing to draw interest from fresh developers, but was cautious about whether it would prove to be a viable career shift for them.

Andy Opsahl  |  Features Editor