Open Data: Going Beyond Solving Problems to Making the Impossible Possible

For the past year and a half, my cofounders and team have focused on what it will take to use, interact and learn from data being produced within the civic sector.
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As a global community, we are producing data at an astounding rate. The pace was recently described as a "new Google every four days" by the highly respected Andreesen Horowitz partner, Peter Levine, in a thought-provoking post addressing the challenge of making sense of this mountain of data.

"... we are now collecting more data each day, so much that 90 percent of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone. In fact, every day, we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data -- by some estimates that's one new Google every four days, and the rate is only increasing. Our desire to use, interact, and learn from this data will become increasingly important and strategic to businesses and society as a whole."

For the past year and a half, my cofounders and team have focused on what it will take to use, interact and learn from data being produced within the civic sector. It's one thing to be able to build an app for civic; it's quite another to build a platform that can manage multiple apps across multiple platforms while addressing the challenges plaguing the "wild west" nature of growth in the quickly emerging market of open data. I was recently invited to share our lessons learned and the promise of the future in mobile open data at the TEDxABQ Technology Salon. Here is a bit of what I shared:

Beyond Solving Problems to New Possibilities

When we first looked at the opportunities for creating apps built on open data, our priority was finding pain points for both cities and the people who lived there. We focused on solving real problems, and it led to some early success. We worked with the City of Albuquerque to deploy their ABQ RIDE app on iOS and Android platforms, and the app not only solved real problems for riders, it also saved real money for the city. The app has grown to over 20,000 regular users and continues to be one of the highest downloaded apps on our platform.

But recently, we've started asking questions that go beyond the basic, that change the experience or make things possible in ways that never were before. Here are two I'm incredibly proud to be a part of:

Public Transit for the Blind

Have you ever thought about what it is like to try to be independent in a city when you're blind? And while the ADA requires certain accommodations for the blind on public transit, little in the way of guidelines or requirements exist for new technologies like mobile apps integrating with transit. But we asked if there was a way to use new technologies like iBeacon and integrate their near-range broadcasting with a transit app? We could make it possible for the blind to independently use public transit, opening up a world of independence where it wasn't possible before. That's a powerful step up from simply solving problems to changing the possibilities. We're currently designing a pilot project to do just that and are looking forward to unveiling details soon.

Managing Emergency Communications for Public Schools

Think about the last time you heard about a lock down in place at a local school. Did you think about what that experience is like for the parents whose children are there -- or for the administrators struggling to deal with an often volatile, unpredictable situation while managing a surge in calls from worried parents? Have you thought about the challenges of emergency personnel responding to the school and trying to focus on keeping a frightening situation from becoming worse by parents arriving on scene and become part of the chaos?

It's a question that was paramount in our planning when we designed our first school app. Sure a school app is useful without this feature, if only for figuring out what is for lunch or finding grades or phone numbers. Fingertip access to school info is already useful in an app in and of itself. But add on top of that utility function the ability to have parents opt into receiving push notices for their children's schools, and that app just went from convenient to vital.

Imagine receiving a push notification from your child's school informing you that the school is on lockdown, why the lockdown is necessary, what is being done to address the situation and what you, the parent, should do in the situation. A worrisome situation doesn't immediately spiral into fear and impulsive reactions. Information, in cases like this, are vital, and what if an app can give you all the information you need at your fingertips instead of waiting on a phone call or the news to break the story?

Open data is an exciting field of opportunities, and we are beginning to discover that those opportunities have the power to change peoples' lives when we can package and deliver information that solves problems and even goes beyond those problems to make the impossible possible.

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