Open Data: The Role of Government in Fostering Smartphone Applications

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The private sector has been doing an incredible job of creating useful applications for smartphone users. Much of the success and boom of the app economy can ultimately be attributed to Apple pioneering the embedded on-device App Store, and showing the average consumer what a smartphone can do. Apps have been available for a long time before the App Store, but they were always something that only the uber-geek knew about. Other smartphones have done an excellent job of creating an app market for developers including RIM. If there is a problem that a smartphone can help solve, it’s almost guaranteed theses days that someone will create an application and try and make a dollar. But what about government? Your local government can play a crucial role in fostering more useful smartphone applications through a movement called Open Data.

Your local government collects an incredible amount of data on daily basis. Everything from real estate conditions, crime rates, weather reports to public transit schedules and maps. Open data is about taking all of this data and making it available with a license that gives users the right to use the data, merge it with other data sets, modify it, and re-distribute it. Open data is also about encouraging governments to package this data in a format that is easy for programs to read and manipulate.

In many governments around the world, public information which you as a taxpayer has paid to collect and have a right to access, is locked away in PDF files spread across multiple web pages or sometimes behind closed doors in folders that you need a written application to access.

There are currently cities around the world who have signed on to making public data sets open but it’s likely your local government has never been approached about such an initiative. In Ottawa, Canada, the City’s IT subcommittee of councilors and city staff are on board and currently rallying support from the public to help them develop interesting applications for the community. The City has approved $50,000 for prize money and incentives for a contest to develop a smartphone app that would display city information.

The implications of making all public data from both a municipal and federal level are incredible. Not only will we see a surge in applications that leverage useful city data on our smartphones, but it will have a tremendous economic impact as well. Take for example the mobile website It’s a simple website that took a developer a couple of nights to create, but requires scraping data from the City of Ottawa which is awkwardly formatted and the app currently doesn’t have permission to use the data. The City has told the developer that the data will cost $17,000 to license, making the site unsustainable. The site is a valuable resource for the local community, and if the city were to develop the mobile site, it’s almost certain it would cost far more than $17,000 worth of taxpayer money. Making the trash schedule data open will allow the developer to create an application for this data available to the community, and the City will save money having to develop it themselves. Also, the developer could potentially charge for this application, allowing for the creation of a new small business. Now multiply this scenario across the thousands of data sets that the City currently controls. These savings and revenue streams are exactly what we need in these tough economic times.

I encourage you to check with your municipal and federal governments about whether or not they have considered the Open Data movement and encourage them to sign on.

For more information, see the links below.

Apps created by developers in Ottawa, Canada for Open Data:

Cities that are signed on to the Open Data movement:

New York
San Francisco

  • Colin B

    Excellent article Kyle. Washington was on this a while ago. They offered a cash incentive to create the most useful app from various data sources. Someone came up with an app that integrated google maps and city crime rate data that gave users the safest walking route home from the bars at night. It's a very trivial application but think of the possibilities.

  • public records

    The private sector has been doing an incredible job of creating useful

  • Kyle McInnes

    I heard about this. I think we talked about it at the BlackBerry Developers Group meeting in Ottawa. It's called Stumble Safely:

    RIM should be at these Open Data events because there are a lot of talented developers. All of the apps for mobile were for the iPhone though and when I told developers about shifting to BlackBerry there wasn't much enthusiasm.

  • Shawn


    Thank you for highlighting the importance of open data. I don't think this topic is fully understood by those who have not yet had a chance to look at a dataset, or use an app made from open data. The more awareness it is given, they more we'll see it succeed.

    I was definitely celebrating Ottawa's decision to support Open Data last week. I think we have a really strong community in this city. Assuming the city releases some high value datasets, we should see some very interesting applications being made in the Capital.

    Finally, thank you for the OttawaTrash mention. It's a great little project; the team involved is very proud of what was done given the very “closed data” provided by the city.


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