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Open Data & APIs: Collecting and Consuming What Cities Produce

Examining the impact open data is having on city services and operations, and the critical importance of the API and in letting the public consume government data in new ways.

Editor's note: The Digital Communities Special Report, which appears twice a year in Government Technology magazine, offers in-depth coverage for local government leaders and technology professionals. View all sections of the special report.

Nobody likes to see their streets dug up for some utility project. Worse, nobody likes to discover a new street project is slowing them down during a morning commute. In Los Angeles, where just about everybody drives, street projects are a nuisance, and when the work isn’t well coordinated and timed it can be a major headache.

That’s why the city government launched Street Wize. It uses open data so that city employees can see whether the road they want repaved is also scheduled for utility repair. Residents can also look up the same information and find out in advance whether a street they commute on is going to be partially shut down for a sewer repair.

Information like this has always existed in local governments, but there have rarely been attempts to open up the data and publish it in a way that people, whether they are city employees or residents, can understand. But attitudes on making city data publicly available have undergone a sea change in recent years. Starting with calls to make government more transparent and information easier to disseminate, the idea has spread throughout the public sector. But its biggest impact, arguably, has been at the local level, where citizens interact with government most frequently.

GovLab, a research laboratory run by New York University, credits open data with changing our world in four significant ways:

  1. It has improved government primarily by increasing transparency and tackling corruption, but also by improving public services in new and innovative ways.
  2. It has empowered citizens by giving them information to make more informed decisions and to make it easier to mobilize socially, aided by new ways of communicating and accessing information.
  3. Unlocking data has fostered innovation and, more importantly, economic growth and job creation.
  4. It is playing an increasingly important role in giving citizens and policymakers new ways to assess problems while enabling civic engagement that has produced targeted interventions and enhanced collaboration.
Governments began making data openly available to the public through Web portals. These somewhat ad hoc efforts often brought mixed results when it came to the usefulness of open data. In some cases the data was still locked because of the format used (often PDF files). More importantly, cities failed to develop the proper application programming interfaces (APIs) that developers can use to consume the data and create value through new services.

Initial efforts at creating APIs for open data were informal, often done as part of a hackathon. But as cities recognize how they can spur new forms of service delivery either at the desktop or, more significantly, on a mobile device, the pressure to formalize how APIs are developed has increased. And for good reason. APIs combined with open data have led to the creation of apps that put the “smart” in smart cities.

For example, a growing number of cities have launched bike-share programs. But savvy cities have supported software developers to create mobile apps that help guide bike riders in choosing the best routes to reach their destination. Well-developed APIs allow a user to query data to find an answer.

But APIs are more than just a way to connect a user with data in an innovative way. They’re also about functionality, empowering citizens to do new things more efficiently. One of the leading cities in API development is overseas. Barcelona, Spain, has developed a global reputation for publishing APIs across government departments that include transit, environment, land use and business data. The city also has an open source infrastructure platform that uses APIs to access sensor data that monitors temperature and air quality, garbage collection, parking and pedestrian flows.

The development of APIs for digital cities has become so important that the European Union launched an initiative known as the City Service Development Kit that fosters development of interoperable and uniform APIs for cities that can turn data from 311 systems into new types of services, and link transportation and geographical data for mobility solutions, as well as APIs that can provide location-based services for tourists.

In the U.S., several cities — including Boston, New York City, San Francisco and Seattle — have been aggressive about opening up their data and developing APIs. Philadelphia has led with its open data as well, becoming one of the largest government users of GitHub, a hosting service for open source code management that has boosted collaboration and faster development of new software services that use the city’s open data.

The importance of open data and APIs doesn’t stop at the public good they create. Open data is increasingly seen as a powerful economic development tool. The consulting firm McKinsey estimates open data’s economic potential at more than $3 trillion in added value to the world’s economy. GovLab’s Open Data 500 is a list of firms that benefit from information published by the federal government.

But economic development doesn’t start to flow when a city publishes data. The information has to be in a standardized format that companies can use, and it must be kept fresh. Cities also need to decide which data to publish. There are hidden costs to publishing open data and expenses can rise quickly if a city isn’t smart about which data to make publicly available. Governments that pay attention to these best practices will find their open data initiatives are not only more cost-effective, but also deliver more value for the public overall.

Go back to the Digital Communities Special Report.