Solving city problems the open source way | Opensource.com

Solving city problems the open source way

Posted 10 Jun 2011 by 

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I was privileged this past weekend to be involved in a twenty-first century version of participatory government.

CityCamp Raleigh was an 'unconference' with little planned structure other than the first day. We learned about unconferences, CityCamps in other cities, and problems facing citizens and state and local governments. The event brought together government, business, neighborhood, non-profit, and academic communities to re-imagine the ways in which open source collaboration and technology will shape the future of Raleigh.

The organization required to identify and solve problems was created on-the-fly as we listened to panels and speakers. The simple low-tech expedient of a grid of masking tape on one of the walls of our venue allowed participants to post ideas and for others to self-select into groups based on those ideas.

Each group focused on one problem where they shared a common interest and generated a presentation to define the problem and their possible solution. Some groups even provided a simple level of implementation or a non-functional prototype to demonstrate their solutions. Sunday afternoon, June 5, each group presented its ideas to a panel of judges and the other groups.

Team "Open it Up"

The winning team, named 'Open it Up,' proposed making public data from the NC Education Report Card open and easily accessible. Although the data is currently available, it is cumbersome to obtain and difficult and expensive to manipulate.

School data can currently be obtained from a website that does not allow any direct comparison of various measurement and tracking criteria. All of the data from the website can be obtained directly from the Department of Public Instruction on a CD for a $10 shipping and handling fee. Once you have the data CD, however, it is still not truly accessible. You must spend several hundred dollars on proprietary software merely to access the database. You must learn to use the software and then figure out how to manipulate the data to meet your needs. This is not open data because it is not easily accessible.

The Open it Up team demonstrated a method to convert this data into CSV (comma-separated values) format, an open data format that can be used by anyone. Any spreadsheet program can import and export data in this format and many open source programs use it. They made the data available on the open data website where it was easily transformed into graphs that allow parents to easily compare school performance. You can download the data yourself from the website and use it in any way you choose.

Ideally, the data should be in an open format to begin with so that proprietary tools would not be required. The raw data should be made publicly available from the internet in this open format. This allows citizens and entrepreneurs to create inexpensive apps to access the data in any variety of ways so that parents could compare schools without having to invest a great deal of money or time in proprietary software.

The $5,000 prize was awarded on creativity, execution, and feasibility. Jason Hibbets, a CityCamp Raleigh committee co-chair and judge (and opensource.com editor) said, “The Open It Up team epitomized the CityCamp Raleigh event. The issue was mentioned in the panel on Friday by Jimmy Goodmon as a parental concern, stated by a government employee in a breakout session on Saturday morning, and a team of strangers came together to propose and prototype a technology solution by the end of the following day.”

Team "Use Open Source"

Another group suggested ways to implement open source software in the City of Raleigh. They recommended supporting last Tuesday's resolution before the City Council to include open source software as an option in the city purchasing process.

Open source software can offer high quality at less expense than proprietary software. I use free and open source software (FOSS) exclusively to run my business and on all of my home computers.

Team "EZ Riders"

One of the more interesting problems was increasing bus ridership and making it easier for those who already use public transportation. The proposed solution was to use QR codes on stickers and the realtime GPS data that will soon be made publicly available from the CAT buses. The QR stickers would be pasted on each bus stop sign and each sign has a unique code embedded in the sticker.

A simple app would let cellphone users snap a photo of the QR sticker and that data would be used to determine which routes serve the stop and the arrival time of the next bus for each route. A similar app in use in San Francisco allows users to get to the bus stops just as buses arrive. For many people, this means less wasted time waiting at bus stops.

Team "5-Points CSA"

Other groups worked on ways to support local community-supported agriculture (CSA) groups, provide easier citizen input to city council members, and even use telepresence in public places to connect with people in our sister cities.

Wrap-up

Many of the participants worked far longer than just the official CityCamp hours to hone their projects. Emails and tweets flew at all hours of night and day.

Much of the success of CityCamp was due to the diverse people who attended. Citizens and government employees brought up problems that the technical people had no knowledge of. Together they were able to synthesize workable solutions in ways that the techies alone might not have attempted, or that non-technical problem-solvers might not have had access to. CityCamp is a perfect example of how collaboration works.

I was amazed at the creativity exhibited by these groups and the amount of energy surrounding these projects. I was exhausted by the end of the three days and yet exhilarated by the results that all of the teams achieved. I met and worked with some old friends and made many new ones.

Thanks to all who participated in planning and staffing CityCamp Raleigh. I would like to thank the sponsors and the state and local government officials who supported the first CityCamp Raleigh. Without them, this event would not have been possible. I enjoyed myself so much that I have volunteered to help plan future CityCamp Raleigh events. I really hope to see local readers at the next CityCamp Raleigh in 2012, or at one of the meetups between now and then.

All of the groups are excited by the results of CityCamp Raleigh and will continue working to implement their projects to make Raleigh a better place to live. Look for the results of their efforts during the coming year.

Originally posted on David Both's blog.

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David Both is a Linux and Open Source advocate who resides in Raleigh, North Carolina. He has been in the IT industry for over thirty years and taught OS/2 for IBM where he worked for over 20 years. While at IBM, he wrote the first training course for the original IBM PC in 1981. He has taught RHCE classes for Red Hat and has worked at MCI Worldcom, Cisco, and the State of North Carolina. He currently works as President, Senior Consultant, and janitor for Millennium Technology Consulting

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