Building a city that thinks like the web


Today marks an interesting day in Toronto. Today Toronto joins Washington, D.C., Vancouver, San Francisco, New York City, Australia, and the US in opening city data to citizens, companies, and the world to improve the quality of life. It begins a great journey to creating a strong new economy in Toronto around an infrastructure of city data.

It’s the data, stupid

(I feel like I’ve said this before).

“More and more governments state that opening government data is their priority, from the U.S: to the UK, from Australia to Belgium. Application contests (or mashup or idea contests) to engage citizen developers in creating new and valuable applications that leverage government data” – Andrea DiMaio

David Eaves identifies that data is the infrastructure for the next economy. It is the baseline upon which applications, value, and wealth can be built. I’ve talked about the benefit of data collection and the value-added analysis services in relation to personal health care. Data is the backbone, it is the building blocks from which developers can begin to build new applications and new services.

Mark Surman provides a great vision for the role that data plays in the development of a city. Re-reading his post has me thinking about a couple of challenges that need to be overcome to continue to enable the opening of city data.

  1. Costs of open data
  2. Economics of contests

Costs of open data

I think there needs to be an active discussion with citizens, politicians and staff members that open data is not free. There are costs associated with the production, release, maintenance, and up keep of the data sets. Additionally there may be a “build it, and they will come” model of development. Open data is not a replacement for city procurement. The city will still need to purchase software and look for ways to innovate to improve citizens lives. Open data is a building block to enable citizens, companies and communities to create applications the enable under-served (or self-served) parts of the city.

Economics of contests

Many of these cities have elected to host contests to encourage and incent local application developers to build upon the data sets.

I’m curious at the effectiveness of contests to engage the developer community and create a sustainable ecosystem. There is no question about the initial effectiveness as a tactic to create value. Apps for Democracy has shown a very strong contribution to the citizens, companies and communities of the District of Columbia.

“A $50,000 dollar investment in changing processes and offering prize money has so far yielded $2.3M in value. That’s a 46 times return on investment in one year.” – David Eaves

I’m curious about decay rate for contests. My feeling is that it is similar to the Chatter of the New Cycle. Where the contest and the data sets spike and then flow through the developer sphere just like news flows through blogosphere. 


I could be totally wrong, Sunlight Labs API shows a steady growth of the number of API calls. Apps for America 2 drew 46 submissions versus 44 for Apps for America, only a 5% growth in the number of submissions. (You might value measure of the applications as increasing with the increased API calls). More interestingly there are only 3 repeat submitters: ForumOne Communications; Jeremy Ashkenas; and Todd Fine in an initial pass of submitters. It’s actually highly probable that the number of repeat submitters is higher given submissions are often submitted with the name of the product or project.

Sustainable economies

Next I need to spend some time looking at sustainable digital ecosystems and economies. Looking at Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Twitter, Facebook and Amazon for examples of engaging developers and creating an ecosystem for developers.

Any suggestions for reading would be appreciated.