New York is on the brink of a data revolution, but will it help the average Joe?

In a dilapidated office on the edge of Chinatown, a group of geeks was plotting a revolution. It will be a quiet revolution, when it comes, but it could change the way New York City and the state are run.

The geeks are members of Open NY, a loosely affiliated group of programmers, activists and city legislators. Noel Hidalgo, one of the group’s organizers and a member of the state senate staff, regularly digressed from the meeting’s agenda, launching into speeches about the importance of their cause.

Gale Brewer, a city council member, had the evening’s biggest news. An open data bill she is sponsoring is slated to clear the council by the end of the year, she said.

The city carefully collects data on everything from the location of parks to daily traffic updates. But until recently the city was unable, or unwilling, to share. Citizens can submit freedom of information requests to access data, but they must pay the city for the time it takes to find and format the information.

A group of community organizers allied with the geeks are trying to turn that “can” into “want”. Getting the public to take control is the vital second piece in the puzzle, and one that, in many ways, is trickier to solve.

But, just like Napster changed the way music is sold and Facebook changed the definition of friendship, the hope is that open data can harness the Internet’s power to change the way cities and the regions they inhabit are governed.

John Tolva, IBM’s director of citizenship and technology, sees a world on the verge of a necessary change.

“There is no such thing as a city,” he said, “except politically. Our methods of organization are inadequate but data can fill the gaps.”

An audio piece accompanying this story can is on my Tumblr.

At the federal level things have been moving briskly, pushed on by an enthusiastic President Obama. But at the state and city level, where fleshy, analogue people tend to get in the way, progress has been slower.

The proposed New York open data law will require city departments to make all the information they collect publicly available on the Internet.

It will be free for citizens, companies and even other departments to use as they wish, but the information as the government spits it out ranges from simply unwieldy to barely comprehensible.

Anticipating the flood, hundreds of computer programmers are busy building the tools needed to make the data fit for human consumption.

At the Great Urban Hack in November, teams had 26 hours to produce a new tool using city data. Described as “a marathon for geeks,” it was held the same weekend as the more popular marathon for runners.

Projects included a tool for uncovering who owns a residential building, a map of the most cockroach infested restaurants in the city and a Pacman game played by real people using cell phones running through the streets. (For the last, the civic justification was exercise and community building.)

The commitment to openness means new technology can be copied by other cities across the United States and around the world. The resources New York can bring to bear makes its awakening an important moment for free data elsewhere.

Following national efforts, other cities around the world have begun to open up. In the United States, Seattle, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. have all made the move. In Europe, London and Stockholm are leading the way.

Sharing data is a central part of the so-called government 2.0 movement. The idea that governments should share what they know has caught on around the world, and new technology makes it possible.

The name draws on Web 2.0, a term describing interactive Web sites such as Facebook and YouTube. Government 2.0 will involve a similar two-way relationship between bureaucracy and citizens.

In place of today’s hierarchical city governments, Tolva envisions a network of different systems, such as education, policing and transportation, connected across a region. IBM does a brisk trade analyzing data on behalf of government bodies, a business Tolva expects to grow.

But Tolva said that “data literacy” is an important question that still needs to be addressed. “A task for 2011,” he said in an e-mail.

Taking on that task is the Participatory Politics Foundation, which runs Open Congress, a Web site that pulls together the text of federal bills and media commentary.

Open Government, a new site that launches this month, will apply the same tools to state and city legislatures, gradually rolling out across the country next year.

David Moore, the foundation’s executive director, believes there is public demand for political and government data. “The tools that exist going into 2011 have become accepted parts of the online infrastructure,” he said.

Open Congress offers the raw materials for online political debate. Bloggers and activists link to Open Congress pages and users can comment directly on the site. The challenge, Moore said, is to offer the same ease of use as mainstream sites such as Facebook.

“The tools are falling short of that because we’re still building the community,” he added.

Speak Up NY, another site being developed by the Manhattan Borough President’s office, is addressing the problem on a local level. It will let community boards – appointed neighborhood panels of citizens – share ideas and co-ordinate their activities.

Hidalgo is also a member of a four-person team in the state senate’s information office, housed in a 20th floor downtown office. The team is tasked with making information about legislation and other senate business easier to understand.

Some of the work is simple, like uploading videos of senate proceedings to YouTube, but the team has developed iPhone and Android apps, providing mobile access to information. Hidalgo joked that, in the past, New York’s oligarchs had the senate in their pocket, but now everyone does.

“Mobile is a way of keeping the public informed wherever they are,” he said.

The senate’s legislation Web site allows residents to post comments on bills. Changes to crossbow hunting rules attracted particular interest, with comments suggesting changes to the text of the bill and urging lawmakers to vote in its favor.

Another option is to change the starting point. Rachel Fauss, policy and research manager at think tank the Citizens Union Foundation, is pushing for a more “unified” approach to disclosure.

“We’ve been thinking about this issue not just in terms of data but also about reports and information,” she said.

A 2009 version of the city’s open data bill would have included that information, but Fauss suggested that City Hall was worried the sheer volume material released would be unmanageable.

“There’s a tension between what’s favorable to do now and what’s possible to achieve in the long term,” she said.

New York has made use of detailed statistics for targeting police resources, under the Compstat program, since the early 1990s. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is also no stranger to the power of data; he made billions of dollars selling financial information to investors through Bloomberg news service.

But the new approach would be much broader. Scott Schwaitzberg, a senior member of deputy mayor Howard Wolfson’s staff, is pushing the case for wider use of data inside City Hall. He said that open data would allow for better collaboration between government departments.

“The myth I would love to dispel is that everyone believes they alone want to be collaborative,” he said.

Schwaitzberg, a former management consultant at McKinsey, has no official portfolio and his job title is simply deputy chief of staff. He relies on his boss’s influence – Wolfson has close ties to Bloomberg – to have an impact.

By making 30-second “elevator pitches” and well-placed phone calls, Schwaitzberg is trying to change the culture of city government.

“We have a big city government, and I’m not sure all the agencies are talking to each other,” Fauss said.

The city is also trying to harness the energy of the programming community. In October, it launched the Big Apps 2.0 competition with a $20,000 prize. Coders have access to 361 data sets to produce mobile phone programs to benefit residents and visitors.

The winner of last year’s inaugural competition pointed users to the nearest subway stop.

Schwaitzberg said that in future the city could sponsor closed competitions, tasking developers to solve a specific problem.

Grander plans are also forming. Proposals to publicly provide Internet are being discussed. A public company could lease network access to businesses and residents, similar to how the city government provides gas and electricity.

Such a move could cut the cost of high speed Internet to a fifth of current prices and let the city provide many more services online.

It might be a few years before people are as comfortable checking the status of bills as they are checking their friends’ status updates on Facebook. But next year could be a turning point for open data at the local level.

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