This blog post is a summary of a $40,000 grant from Omidyar Network to Aventura Capital Partners to support the 2012 edition of Ciudad Movil DF, an annual 48-hour hackathon in which programmers develop mobile applications using datasets from Mexico City government agencies. This information is also available in IATI-compliant XML.

Amount of grant: USD $40,000

Date that grant agreement was signed: July 26, 2012

Implementing organizations:

Co-funders of project:

Description:

Ciudad Movil DF 2012 is the second annual edition of a weekend-long hackathon that pairs competing teams of mobile app programmers with city government agencies to develop the best application for each agency. This year’s edition includes the Ciudad Móvil Conference, co-organized by Future Tense, to encourage dialog among innovators, technologists, and reformists from city governments in Mexico, Argentina and the United States.

Context:

Most civic app contests and hackathons produce half-completed ideas and prototypes for future products and platforms that rarely are implemented or gain a significant user base. (Peter Corbett of iStrategyLabs speaks often about the shortcomings and opportunities of app contests.)

In Latin America hackathons like Developing Latin America and OpenDataMx have been successful in creating a sense of community among programmers that are interested in using technology to analyze, contextualize, and visualize information about how government works and how public services are performing. But I can’t think of a single example where a winning application has been meaningfully incorporated by a public institution or has gained a user base of more than 200 regular users.

Ciudad Movil DF’s unique proposal is that groups of mobile application developers (mostly from university entrepreneurship clubs) compete against one another to develop applications that are designed to meet challenges put forth by agencies of the city, and to create applications that are officially adopted and distributed by those same government agencies. Some examples of mobile applications that have already been developed for city agencies are the EcoBici app for iPhone, BlackBerry & Android to find nearby available public bicycles and TaxiAviso, an app for iPhone and Android that permits users to submit complaints about taxi service and to consult the complaints that others have left by entering the license plate number of each taxi. (A video news report describing TaxiAviso in greater detail is available in Spanish at El Universal.)

Hopefully by the end of Ciudad Movil DF 2012 residents of Mexico City will have access to many more applications that improve their day-to-day lives and enable more meaningful civic participation.

Impact metrics:

  • One event that brings together at least 100 programmers and representatives from city agencies to develop civic apps.
  • The development of at least 15 apps using 7 government datasets..
  • At least 5 meetings between visiting CTOs and Mexico City government representatives.

Final thoughts:

I am writing this following the first day of the conference and before the beginning of the hackathon, so these reflexions are without the benefit of time and without knowledge of the outcomes of the hackathon, but I did want to include some brief observations about day one.

First Irak Lopez of the Mexico City Office of Modernization presented the evolution of Mexico’s three chapters of transparency: 1) FOI requests, 2) pro-actively putting information on websites before it is requested by citizens, and 3) open data. He then showed us a preview of the city’s new open data portal that will be available to the participants of the hackathon and which Mayor Ebrard will launch publicly in the next couple months. He also showed us a preview of BoletaDF, a platform in which citizens can measure performance indicators for all of Mexico City’s public services. It too will be officially launched in the next couple months.

Alissa Black of New America Foundation, who published a must-read piece about open data, business and cities at Slate, moderated an interesting round-table conversation about the economic benefits of open data with Rudi Borrman of Buenos Aires, Nigel Jacob of Boston, and Shannon Spanhake of San Francisco. Nigel in particular made the excellent point that too often the economic benefits of open data are only measured in terms of the number of start-ups and jobs created that depend on access to open data. This is the classic anecdote of the many businesses that were developed once GPS data was made available to the public. (And if you haven’t heard Steven Johnson describe the story of GPS at the end of his TED talk, it’s worth taking the 20 minutes to listen to.) But Nigel reminds us that there is also another important economic benefit of open data, and that is increasing the capacity of public officials and the efficiency of public services.

Jed Sundwall of Measured Voice and Dan Melton of Granicus each gave presentations about how their companies are helping governments change how they communicate with citizens. Sundwall insisted that, for both good and bad, tweets are increasingly the primary documents of the 21st century, and used the example of the FBI using its Twitter account to dispel rumors that an institutional laptop was hacked. (Ironically, as Jed spoke, Mexico City officials were struggling to respond to false rumors spreading on Twitter about a fictitious wave of violence in nearby Nezahualcóyotl.) Meanwhile, Dan Melton of Granicus presented Speak Up Austin, a platform where Austin residents have submitted 426 ideas, 21 of which have been incorporated by the city.

Granicus is increasingly focused on streaming video of city council meetings to citizens via mobile applications. They have built an archive of videos of 250,000 public meetings and over a million hours of debate. They are now working on new functionality so that citizens receive notifications when particular issues of interest are discussed at city council meetings so that they can immediately tune in to the stream via their devices. Melton also envisions a day when excerpts of public debates from cities across the United States (or world) about the same topic can be compiled into a single video. (For example, a 30-minute look of how issues related to public parking or community gardens are being debated across cities.)

Admittedly, the timing of the event was less than ideal since a new government takes office in Mexico City at the beginning of December so there is still uncertainty about which public officials at which public agencies will be responsible for what. But my impression is that a network of like-minded reformists working in various city governments was formed at the event, and hopefully they will continue to share information and strategies. As Alissa Black noted during the round-table discussion, too often technologists must develop customized applications for individual cities because they don’t publish their data in standardized formats. The two exceptions to that rule so far are Open311 and Google Transit Feed Specification, both of which have demonstrated the blossoms that bloom from the bud of standards.

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