Olli Sulopuisto in Atlantic Cities: “If there’s something you’d like to know about Helsinki, someone in the city administration most likely has the answer. For more than a century, this city has funded its own statistics bureaus to keep data on the population, businesses, building permits, and most other things you can think of. Today, that information is stored and freely available on the internet by an appropriately named agency, City of Helsinki Urban Facts.
There’s a potential problem, though. Helsinki may be Finland’s capital and largest city, with 620,000 people. But it’s only one of more than a dozen municipalities in a metropolitan area of almost 1.5 million. So in terms of urban data, if you’re only looking at Helsinki, you’re missing out on more than half of the picture.
Helsinki and three of its neighboring cities are now banding together to solve that problem. Through an entity called Helsinki Region Infoshare, they are bringing together their data so that a fuller picture of the metro area can come into view.
That’s not all. At the same time these datasets are going regional, they’re also going “open.” Helsinki Region Infoshare publishes all of its data in formats that make it easy for software developers, researchers, journalists and others to analyze, combine or turn into web-based or mobile applications that citizens may find useful. In four years of operation, the project has produced more than 1,000 “machine-readable” data sources such as a map of traffic noise levels, real-time locations of snow plows, and a database of corporate taxes.
A global leader
All of this has put the Helsinki region at the forefront of the open-data movement that is sweeping cities across much of the world. The concept is that all kinds of good things can come from assembling city data, standardizing it and publishing it for free. Last month, Helsinki Region Infoshare was presented with the European Commission’s prize for innovation in public administration.
The project is creating transparency in government and a new digital commons. It’s also fueling a small industry of third-party application developers who take all this data and turn it into consumer products.
For example, Helsinki’s city council has a paperless system called Ahjo for handling its agenda items, minutes and exhibits that accompany council debates. Recently, the datasets underlying Ahjo were opened up. The city built a web-based interface for browsing the documents, but a software developer who doesn’t even live in Helsinki created a smartphone app for it. Now anyone who wants to keep up with just about any decision Helsinki’s leaders have before them can do so easily.
Another example is a product called BlindSquare, a smartphone app that helps blind people navigate the city. An app developer took the Helsinki region’s data on public transport and services, and mashed it up with location data from the social networking app Foursquare as well as mapping tools and the GPS and artificial voice capabilities of new smartphones. The product now works in dozens of countries and languages and sells for about €17 ($24 U.S.)
Helsinki also runs competitions for developers who create apps with public-sector data. That’s nothing new — BlindSquare won the Apps4Finland and European OpenCities app challenges in 2012. But this year, they’re trying a new approach to the app challenge concept, funded by the European Commission’s prize money and Sitra.
It’s called Datademo. Instead of looking for polished but perhaps random apps to heap fame and prize money on, Datademo is trying to get developers to aim their creative energies toward general goals city leaders think are important. The current competition specifies that apps have to use open data from the Helsinki region or from Finland to make it easier for citizens to find information and participate in democracy. The competition also gives developers seed funding upfront.
Datademo received more than 40 applications in its first round. Of those, the eight best suggestions were given three months and €2,000 ($2,770 U.S) to implement their ideas. The same process will be repeated two times, resulting in dozens of new app ideas that will get a total of €48,000 ($66,000 U.S.) in development subsidies. Keeping with the spirit of transparency, the voting and judging process is open to all who submit an idea for each round….”