Our Lives Online

How to Hack Civic Data for Social Good

Jason Lopez Writer
civic data

Rise in connected devices, access to open data and affordable Internet cloud services are helping software hackers to pioneer new public services aimed at more sustainable living.

When Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States in 1959, it is said that after seeing all the automobiles on L.A. freeways he found it remarkable that so many cars had only one person in them.

Today, in view of the costs of owning and operating a car to drive to work, as well as the time lost on clogged highways, the one-person-one-car approach is beginning to be challenged. Still, many Americans say they don’t like taking trains and buses because they have to conform to awkward schedules, timings and routes.

That’s where technologists like Richard Barnes come into the mix.

Transit company

Barnes is the co-founder and developer for OMG Transit, a successful and growing public transportation data service and mobile app that emerged out of last year’s inaugural National Day of Civic Hacking.

This year’s National Day of Civic Hacking event, held on May 31 and June 1, will pull together software hackers like Barnes in some 100 cities, including for the first time hackathons coordinated outside the U.S. in places such as Australia, China and India. This two-day event connects citizens, software developers and entrepreneurs so they can use publicly-released data, code and technology, including Maker technologies such as Intel Galileo, to improve communities and the governments. The event may lead to new services and apps like the one Barnes and his OMG Transit team created.

shared data infographic

During a recent data services accelerator event held at Intel headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif., Barnes described how OMG aggregates real-time information about the many ways of getting around in a city, data that then is easily accessible via a nifty mobile app.

OMG Transit logo

“We envision a future where very few people own cars and many people are reliant on public transit to get around,” said Barnes.

He points to New York City’s infrastructure as an example of an area with railroads, light rail, buses and subways. Many metro areas around the nation have built up these kinds of transportation systems.

“And there are a lot of emerging transit options, like car shares or even bike shares,” he said.

One of those car-sharing services is Car2Go.com, which offers cars that can be checked out and then dropped off somewhere else later.

Car2Go is an important player for third party developers. The service, owned by Daimler, makes its data publicly available. Having that information broadens the scope of OMG’s real-time offerings. But some entities haven’t given up their data so easily.

“Amtrak, we’re talking with now,” says Barnes. “We’re hoping that they’re going to release the public API. Intercity buses are like the final frontier of open data, there’s not much out there that developers are allowed to use even though sometimes they occasionally have the data internally.”

public bus

But there is one shining example. A bus system that is helping visionaries like Barnes is TriMet in Portland, formerly known as the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon.

Since 2007 TriMet has offered its data to third party developers to create apps to “promote the use of transit and information related to transit.”

Bibiana McHugh, TriMet’s IT manager of GIS and Location Based Services, has been somewhat of an evangelist, spreading the word about open source data and its impact on the users of transportation services.

“TriMet has benefited from making its data openly available,” she said to an Open World Forum audience in Paris in 2012. “We have found that it’s important to make access to the data for the developers as easy as possible.”

TriMet’s app page lists 52 smartphone applications available to bus riders that deliver information such as schedules, bus stops, real-time information and points of interest.

Born from TriMet’s work with Google is the General Transit Feed Specification or GTFS.

subway train

This year the search giant expanded its Google Maps coverage of public transportation from London to the entire U.K. using GTFS has the foundation for the app. “It’s every single train, bus, tram and ferry right down to the small request stops as well as the major National Express coaches,” reports Darren Allan for ITProPortal.

Implicit Data

The data we share online at Facebook or Twitter, for example, is the explicit data that these companies see as their core business value. They may share their APIs, but not all of the data created by people using the services.

But data that is made available publicly is what developers can access and find new, meaningful ways to use it. A lot of this available data is implicit, according to Jeremiah Owyang, founder of Crowd Companies. It meaning that you generate it without thinking about it, like the GPS locations your phone records.

“People don’t have to say things,” said Owyang. “Your mobile device is submitting signals on your behalf, a signal that says where you are, usually when you share with others.”

Owyang, founded Crowd Companies after a stint with Altimeter Group researching how technology is enabling companies and people to better collaborate. He steps into the world of shared data in a physical way, using technology to live life-as-a-service. It led him to quickly reduce his consumption of durable goods.

“Everyday we are sharing data,” said Owyang. “Transportation is a prime example. The more things connect the more efficient it gets. It not only saves you time and frustration but also your resources, which even impacts global warming through the efficiency of resources and less emissions.”


Technologists like Barnes, McHugh and Owyang see the harnessing of big data – and formerly disconnected sets of public data – as inevitable. It’s a green field for experimentation and development.

“If we can solve real problems in real communities so that there are business models associated with it, then things really move forward,” says Brandon Barnett, Director of Business Innovation at Intel Labs.

“Those are kind of the levers we are playing with,” he says, referring to the National Day of Civic Hacking and the Data Services Accelerator. “I think you can’t just try to force the business model to change because that doesn’t work, it’s not sustainable.”

Barnett believes technologies should allow people to participate with new resources created from these big data sources. His model includes solutions that are effective, easy to use, transparent and under the control of the user. That’s a tall order but it speaks to the challenges and the payoffs of transforming a bus system or a water system.

“Then those technologies would help democratize the value of data in people’s lives,” he concludes.

But for Barnett it’s not enough to merely produce apps.

“It takes creating an ecosystem, a system of exchange where people see that value, and are willing to pay for it to sustain small companies,” he said.

“We’re not necessarily looking for the next Facebook or Google. It’s about transforming systems by doing something with this burgeoning data about society and each person.”

civic hacking banner


Train photo by Google.

Jason Lopez contributed this article.

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