Cities show how to make open data usable

Bianca Spinosa at GCN: “Government agencies have no shortage of shareable data., the open-data clearinghouse that launched in May 2009, had more than 147,331 datasets as of mid-July, and state and local governments are joining federal agencies in releasing ever-broader arrays of information.

The challenge, however, remains making all that data usable. Obama administration officials like to talk about how the government’s weather data supports forecasting and analysis that support businesses and help Americans every day. But relatively few datasets do more than just sit there, and fewer still are truly accessible for the average person.

At the federal level, that’s often because agency missions do not directly affect citizens the way that local governments do. Nevertheless, every agency has customers and communities of interest, and there are lessons feds can learn from how cities are sharing their data with the public.

One such model is Citygram. The app links to a city’s open-data platform and sends subscribers a weekly text or email message about selected activities in their neighborhoods. Charlotte officials worked closely with Code for America fellows to develop the software, and the app launched in December 2014 in that city and in Lexington, Ky.

Three other cities – New York, Seattle, and San Francisco – have since joined, and Orlando, Fla.; Honolulu; the Research Triangle area of North Carolina; and Montgomery County, Md., are considering doing so.

Citygram “takes open data and transforms it, curates it and translates it into human speech,” said Twyla McDermott, Charlotte’s corporate IT program manager. “People want to know what’s happening around them.”

Demonstrating real-world utility

People in the participating cities can go to, select their city and choose topics of interest (such as pending rezonings or new business locations). Then they enter their address and a radius to consider “nearby” and finally select either text or email for their weekly notifications.

Any city government can use the technology, which is open source and freely available on GitHub. San Francisco put its own unique spin on the app by allowing subscribers to sign up for notifications on tree plantings. With Citygram NYC, New Yorkers can find information on vehicle collisions within a radius of up to 4 miles….(More)”