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January 23 2013

Making open data more valuable, one micropayment at a time

When it comes to making sense of the open data economy, tracking cents is valuable. In San Francisco, where Mayor Ed Lee’s administration has reinvigorated city efforts to release open data for economic benefits, entrepreneur Yo Yoshida has made the City by the Bay’s government data central to his mobile ecommerce startup, Appallicious.

Appallicious is positioning its Skipitt mobile platform as a way for cities to easily process mobile transactions for their residents. The startup is generating revenue from each transaction the city takes with its platform using micropayments, a strategy that’s novel in the world of open data but has enabled Appallicious to make enough money to hire more employees and look to expand to other municipalities. I spoke to Yoshida last fall about his startup, what it’s like to go through city procurement, and whether he sees a market opportunity in more open government data.

Where did the idea for Appallicious come from?

Yo Yoshida: About three years ago, I was working on another platform with a friend that I met years ago, working on a company called Beaker. We discovered a number of problems. One of them was being able to find our way around San Francisco and not only get information, but be able to transact with different services and facilities, including going to a football game at the 49ers stadium. Why couldn’t we order a beer to our seats or order merchandise? Or find the food trucks that were sitting in some of the parks and then place an order from that?

So we were looking at what solutions were out there via mobile. We started exploring how to go about doing this. We looked first at the vendors and approaching them. That’s been done with a lot of other specific verticals. We started talking to the city a little bit. We looked at the open data legislation that was coming out at that time and said, “This is the information we need, but now we also need to be able to figure out how to monetize and populate that.”

We set about starting to build a platform that could not only support one type of transaction — ordering merchandise or something like that — but provide what I needed as a citizen to fulfill my needs and solve problems. We approached San Francisco Recreations and Parks because we had heard, through a third party, that they had been looking for a solution like this for two years. We showed them what we were doing. They asked us to come back with a demonstration of a product in a few weeks. We came back and showed them the first iteration of a mobile app.

Essentially, what we built was a mobile commerce platform that supports multiple tenants of financial transactions using open data. We enable the government — or whoever we’re working with — to be able to manage it from a multi-tiered, hierarchical structure.

We’ve built this platform to enable government to manage all of their mobile technology and transactions through software as a service.

What’s your business model?

Yo Yoshida: San Francisco Recreations and Parks has 1,200 facilities in San Francisco. The parks are free. The museums, obviously, are not, but they all sit on park land. You’re talking about permits, reservations for picnic tables. You have all of these different facilities, and all sorts of different ways to transact at each of these facilities. What we’ve done is create an informational piece for the public, which gives them the ability to find all sorts of facilities.

There’s two different models for the financial piece. One is subscription-based.

However, with San Francisco Recreations and Parks, we saw a bigger and a more sustainable proposition in taking micropayments on transactions. There’s tons of transactions going on every day, from permitting to making reservations to scheduling classes to ticketing for events. Golden Gate Park gets 15 million visitors a year, including those visiting the Botanical Gardens, the Japanese Tea Gardens, and the California Academy of Science. Essentially, what we’re setting up is a micropayment or a convenience fee on each of those transactions.

San Francisco’s Recreations and Parks annual revenue alone is $35 million. That’s a percentage of ticket sales and lease prices for everything that all of these different properties sit on. Their extended reach is $200 million plus. So if we were to tap into that marketplace and take micropayments on them, we’re looking at a couple million dollars a year for us.

How big is your company now?

Yo Yoshida: We started with two people. We are now about to hire a total of 12. We expect to grow to maybe 30 by next summer, all depending on our funding rounds as they come through. We have interest from other cities, like San Diego, Denver and Los Angeles. We’re basically a plug-and-play solution for government or cities to be able to take open data, plug it in and then start creating financial pools out of it for the consumers to be able to have easy transactions.

Can other cities “plug and play” open data into your system?

Yo Yoshida: The biggest pain for me, obviously, is the transactions. Some cities have to pass legislation. If they have open data, plugging in and getting the informational piece out first, which is what Recreations and Parks is doing, essentially, is a no-brainer.

If someone has good open datasets, it would take maybe a month to implement this for an entire large city, depending on the departments. You first would have the tools for everyone to be able to find their way around. For instance, there’s always been pain points with Muni, like finding the three-day passes. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t have that built into your map and into your directions if you’re going to one of those facilities, and then be able to use that to actually go to the museums as well.

Entrepreneurs trying to use government data sometimes describe challenges around its quality. Is that true here?

Yo Yoshida: We had to work with San Francisco on that, but each of the departments that we’re working with has assigned someone to clean up the data. You can’t have bad data in there. We’ve had that pain point in our past conversations. Frequently, it is a three-month wait time for them to clean up their data.

The Department of Public Health is doing it now. Their GIS person usually is the person that gets assigned to making sure all of the data that’s opened up to the public is cleaned up. He’s done an amazing job cleaning up all of the data points. It’s been a win-win situation because they all want this technology. They know they have to have clean data to get it, so they’re cleaning up their data.

Do you think more startups will target government as a customer?

Yo Yoshida: The procurement process was a long and grueling process. A lot of it came from the City Attorney’s office not understanding what this was, what this technology is like and that they can’t own everything. We did struggle a little bit there. We were very patient. We educated them as we went along. Most small startups can’t get to that place yet.

I think having someone sitting above that who actually understands software as a service and drives these things through a few times so they can get used to this process is going to make a huge difference for entrepreneurs.

We see this type of development and drive from the Mayor’s office as a huge opportunity to get the process streamlined and more efficient, so that entrepreneurs can actually come up and create technology. I mean, we suffered for a year, but we got it through. Hopefully, that will pave the way for others. With the new legislation, we’re hoping that they’re going to make it a much more efficient process and have someone there that actually understands this process.

The barriers to entry were so high before. If they streamline the process for entrepreneurs, there’s an incredible ability to access extreme amounts of revenue.

Is there a market opportunity in the open data San Francisco is releasing?

Yo Yoshida: There’s a small market play selling apps. I think you’re going to see, with companies like ours, that there truly is an ability to innovate on top of open data.

There absolutely is opportunity. It’s created us. We know that there’s going to be competitors coming along behind us, filling some needs that we can’t. The subscription-based model is going to probably work for several departments, like the Department of Public Health.

As far as hackathons and stuff like that, personally, I think they’re very innovative, but they’re not sustainable. There are definitely companies that are sustainable moving forward.

As far as I can tell, we are pretty much the first sustainable one on the scene. Our projected numbers, just off of micropayments, are going to not only generate revenue for us, but generate revenue for the city. I am looking at this as a sustainable company that can move forward and scale through and accommodate every type of city.

I see lots of new apps and lots of great informational apps, but they don’t make money. You have to sustain the technology. As you know, every version needs a new update. Who’s going to be maintaining that? How are you going to pay for the maintenance and how are you going to pay for the staff to do it? You have to create the real company. Our infrastructure is created to be a sustainable solution for cities moving forward.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. This post is part of our ongoing investigation into the open data economy.

Related

Jordan Kantor at Ratio 3, San Francisco

This is a walkthrough of Jordan Kantor’s solo exhibition at Ratio 3 Gallery in San Francisco. It’s Jordan Kantor’s third solo show at Ratio 3. The exhibition features new paintings by the San Francisco-based artist. On display is an installation of paintings that re-purpose materials used during the process of painting, a group of dark paintings that utilize paint sludge, and a series of paintings that are based upon film stills used in studio settings.

Jordan Kantor was born in 1972. He studied at Harvard University, Cambridge, Stanford University, Stanford, and Hochschule der Künste, Berlin. The artist lives and works in San Francisco. Recent exhibitions include The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2012); Churner and Churner, New York (2011); The Henry Art Gallery, Seattle (2011); Ratio 3, San Francisco (2010); The Seattle Art Museum (2010); Art 40 Basel Statements (2009). The solo exhibition at Ratio 3 runs until February 9, 2013.

Jordan Kantor at Ratio 3, San Francisco. Opening reception, January 11, 2013. Video by Ross Stanley.

> Right-click (Mac: ctrl-click) this link to download Quicktime video file.
> On YouTube:

Press release:

Ratio 3 is pleased to announce a solo exhibition of new paintings by Jordan Kantor. The exhibition will be on view from January 11th through February 9th, 2013. This will be Kantor’s third solo exhibition at Ratio 3.
The exhibition will feature an installation of paintings that re-purpose materials employed during the process of painting but are rarely considered the end result. This idea is found in a series of colorful abstractions on cotton rags, sewn to canvas. The rags, once used for removing color from a painting-in- process or cleaning a paintbrush, have been gathered, sewn to un-primed canvas, and stretched. Attached to each side of the stretched object is a wooden slat, which has been painted to match a single color found in the cotton rag.

These pieces are shown alongside a group of dark, monochromatic paintings that utilize paint sludge, the usually-discarded pigment sediment that gathers at the bottom of a vessel containing mineral spirits used to clean paint brushes.

Extending these ideas, Kantor investigates the manner in which color is used and interpreted through another series of paintings included here, based upon film stills used in the studio setting. A sequence of ten paintings depict a film test–intended to be used by technicians to calibrate how color is captured and presented on film, not necessarily seen by an audience–of a woman’s hand passing in front of various colors of cloth. Elaborations of these color studies are found in Kantor’s installation of painted wooden structures that suspend from the gallery ceiling and hang on the wall. These pieces draw from individual colors found in the film still paintings.

Kantor’s artwork has been shown in numerous exhibitions, most recently at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2012); Churner and Churner, New York (2011); The Henry Art Gallery, Seattle (2011); Ratio 3, San Francisco (2010); The Seattle Art Museum (2010); Art 40 Basel Statements (2009); The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2009); the 2008 California Biennial at the Orange County Museum of Art (2008); Johnen Galerie, Berlin, Germany (2008); Thomas Dane Gallery, London (2007); and Artists Space, New York (2006). In 2010, Kantor became the inaugural recipient of ArtNow International’s Pioneer Art Award, which includes a residency at the Kadist Art Foundation in Paris, France. He lives in San Francisco.

jordan-kantor-011113

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January 17 2013

Yelp partners with NYC and SF on restaurant inspection data

One of the key notions in my “Government as a Platform” advocacy has been that there are other ways to partner with the private sector besides hiring contractors and buying technology. One of the best of these is to provide data that can be used by the private sector to build or enrich their own citizen-facing services. Yes, the government runs a weather website but it’s more important that data from government weather satellites shows up on the Weather Channel, your local TV and radio stations, Google and Bing weather feeds, and so on. They already have more eyeballs and ears combined than the government could or should possibly acquire for its own website.

That’s why I’m so excited to see a joint effort by New York City, San Francisco, and Yelp to incorporate government health inspection data into Yelp reviews. I was involved in some early discussions and made some introductions, and have been delighted to see the project take shape.

My biggest contribution was to point to GTFS as a model. Bibiana McHugh at the city of Portland’s TriMet transit agency reached out to Google, Bing, and others with the question: “If we came up with a standard format for transit schedules, could you use it?” Google Transit was the result — a service that has spread to many other U.S. cities. When you rejoice in the convenience of getting transit timetables on your phone, remember to thank Portland officials as well as Google.

In a similar way, Yelp, New York, and San Francisco came up with a data format for health inspection data. The specification is at http://yelp.com/healthscores. It will reportedly be announced at the US Conference of Mayors with San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee today.

Code for America built a site for other municipalities to pledge support. I’d also love to see support in other local restaurant review services from companies like Foursquare, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo!  This is, as Chris Anderson of TED likes to say, “an idea worth spreading.”

November 21 2012

October 19 2012

San Francisco looks to tap into the open data economy

As interest in open data continues to grow around the world, cities have become laboratories for participatory democracy. They’re also ground zero for new experiments in spawning civic startups that deliver city services or enable new relationships between the people and city government. San Francisco was one of the first municipalities in the United States to embrace the city as a platform paradigm in 2009, with the launch of an open data platform.

Years later, the city government is pushing to use its open data to accelerate economic development. On Monday, San Francisco announced revised open data legislation to enable that change and highlighted civic entrepreneurs who are putting the city’s data to work in new mobile apps.

City staff have already published the revised open data legislation on GitHub. (If other cities want to “fork” it, clone away.) David Chiu, the chairman of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the city’s legislative body, introduced the new version on Monday and submitted it on Tuesday. A vote is expected before the end of the year.

Speaking at the offices of the Hatchery in San Francisco, Chiu observed that, by and large, the data that San Francisco has put out showed the city in a positive light. In the future, he suggested, that should change. Chiu challenged the city and the smartest citizens of San Francisco to release more data, figure out where the city could take risks, be more entrepreneurial and use data to hold the city accountable. In his remarks, he said that San Francisco is working on open budgeting but is still months away from getting the data that they need.

Rise of the CDO

This new version of the open data legislation will create a chief data officer (CDO) position, assign coordinators for open data in each city department, and make it clear in procurement language that the city owns data and retains access to it.

“Timelines, mandates and especially the part about getting them to inventory what data they collect are all really good,” said Luke Fretwell, founder of Govfresh, which covers open government in San Francisco. “It’s important that’s in place. Otherwise, there’s no way to be accountable. Previous directives didn’t do it.”

The city’s new CDO will “be responsible for sharing city data with the public, facilitating the sharing of information between City departments, and analyzing how data sets can be used to improve city decision making,” according to the revised legislation.

In creating a CDO, San Francisco is running a play from the open data playbooks of Chicago and Philadelphia. (San Francisco’s new CDO will be a member of the mayor’s staff in the budget office.) Moreover, the growth of CDOs around the country confirms the newfound importance of civic data in cities. If open government data is to be a strategic asset that can be developed for the public good, civic utility and economic value, it follows that it needs better stewards.

Assigning a coordinator in each department is also an acknowledgement that open data consumers need a point of contact and accountability. In theory, this could help create better feedback loops between the city and the cohort of civic entrepreneurs that this policy is aimed at stimulating.

Who owns the data?

San Francisco’s experience with NextBus and a conflict over NextMuni real-time data is a notable case study for other cities and states that are considering similar policies.

The revised legislation directs the Committee on Information Technology (COIT) to, within 60 days from the passage of the legislation, enact “rules for including open data requirements in applicable City contracts and standard contract provisions that promote the City’s open data policies, including, where appropriate, provisions to ensure that the City retains ownership of City data and the ability to post the data on data.sfgov.org or make it available through other means.”

That language makes it clear that it’s the city that owns city data, not a private company. That’s in line with a principle that open government data is a public good that should be available to the public, not locked up in a proprietary format or a for-pay database. There’s some nuance to the issue, in terms of thinking through what rights a private company that invests in acquiring and cleaning up government data holds, but the basic principle that the public should have access to public data is sound. The procurement practices in place will mean that any newly purchased system that captures structured data must have a public API.

Putting open data to work

Speaking at the Hatchery on Monday, Mayor Ed Lee highlighted three projects that each showcase open data put to use. The new Rec & Park app (iOS download), built by San Francisco-based startup Appallicious, enables citizens to find trails, dog parks, playgrounds and other recreational resources on a mobile device. “Outside” (iOS download), from San Francisco-based 100plus, encourages users to complete “healthy missions” in their neighborhoods. The third project, from mapping giant Esri, is a beautiful web-based visualization of San Francisco’s urban growth based upon open data from San Francisco’s planning departments.

The power of prediction

Over the past three years, transparency, accountability, cost savings and mobile apps have constituted much of the rationale for open data in cities. Now, San Francisco is renewing its pitch for the role of open data in job creation and combining increased efficiency and services.

Jon Walton, San Francisco’s chief information officer (CIO), identified two next steps for San Francisco in an interview earlier this year: working with other cities to create a federated model (now online at cities.data.gov) and using its own data internally to identify and solve issues. (San Francisco and cities everywhere will benefit from looking to New York City’s work with predictive data analytics.)

“We’re thinking about using data behind the firewalls,” said Walton. “We want to give people a graduated approach, in terms of whether they want to share data for themselves, to a department, to the city, or worldwide.”

On that count, it’s notable that Mayor Lee is now publicly encouraging more data sharing between private companies that are collecting data in San Francisco. As TechCrunch reported, the San Francisco government quietly passed a new milestone when it added to its open data platform private-sector datasets on pedestrian and traffic movement collected by Motionloft.

“This gives the city a new metric on when and where congestion happens, and how many pedestrians and vehicles indicate a slowdown will occur,” said Motionloft CEO Jon Mills, in an interview.

Mills sees opportunities ahead to apply predictive data analytics to life and death situations by providing geospatial intelligence for first responders in the city.

“We go even further when police and fire data are brought in to show the relation between emergency situations and our data,” he said. “What patterns cause emergencies in different neighborhoods or blocks? We’ll know, and the city will be able to avoid many horrible situations.”

Such data-sharing could have a real impact on department bottom lines: while “Twitter311” created a lot of buzz in the social media world, access to real-time transit data is what is estimated to have saved San Francisco more than $1 million a year by reducing the volume of San Francisco 311 calls by 21.7%.

Open data visualization can also enable public servants to understand how city residents are interacting and living in an urban area. For instance, a map of San Francisco pedestrian injuries shows high-injury corridors that merit more attention.

Open data and crowdsourcing will not solve all IT ills

While San Francisco was an early adopter of open data, that investment hasn’t changed an underlying reality: the city government remains burdened by a legacy of dysfunctional tech infrastructure, as detailed in a report issued in August 2012 by the City and County of San Francisco.

“San Francisco’s city-wide technology governing structure is ineffective and poorly organized, hampered by a hands-off Mayor, a weak Committee on Information Technology, an unreliable Department of Technology, and a departmentalized culture that only reinforces the City’s technological ineffectiveness,” state the report’s authors.

San Francisco government has embraced technologically progressive laws and rhetoric, but hasn’t always followed through on them, from setting deadlines to reforming human resources, code sharing or procurement.

“Departments with budgets in the tens of millions of dollars — including the very agency tasked with policing government ethics — still have miles to go,” commented Gov 2.0 advocate Adriel Hampton and former San Francisco government staffer in an interview earlier this year.

Hampton, who has turned his advocacy to legal standards for open data in California and to working at Nationbuilder, a campaign software startup, says that San Francisco has used technology “very poorly” over the past decade. While he credited the city’s efforts in mobile government and recent progress on open data, the larger system is plagued with problems that are endemic in government IT.

Hampton said the city’s e-government efforts largely remain in silos. “Lots of departments have e-services, but there has been no significant progress in integrating processes across departments, and some agencies are doing great while others are a mess,” commented Hampton. “Want to do business in SF? Here’s a sea of PDFs.”

The long-standing issues here go beyond policy, in his view. “San Francisco has a very fragmented IT structure, where the CIO doesn’t have real authority, and proven inability to deliver on multi-departmental IT projects,” he said. As an example, Hampton pointed to San Francisco’s Justice Information Tracking System, a $25 million, 10-year project that has made some progress, but still has not been delivered.

“The City is very good at creating feel-good requirements for its vendors that simply result in compliant companies marking up and reselling everything from hardware to IT software and services,” he commented. “This makes for not only higher costs and bureaucratic waste, but huge openings for fraud. Contracting reform was the number one issue identified in the ImproveSF employee ideation exercise in 2010, but it sure didn’t make the press release.”

Hampton sees the need for two major reforms to keep San Francisco on a path to progress: empowering the CIO position with more direct authority over departmental IT projects, and reforming how San Francisco procures technology, an issue he says affects all other parts of the IT landscape. The reason city IT is so bad, he says, its that it’s run by a 13-member council. “[The] poor CIO’s hardly got a shot.”

All that said, Hampton gives David Chiu and San Francisco city government high marks for their recent actions. “Bringing in Socrata to power the open data portal is a solid move and shows commitment to executing on the open data principle,” he said.

While catalyzing more civic entrepreneurship is important, creating enduring structural change in how San Francisco uses technology will require improving how the city government collects, stores, consumes and releases data, along with how it procures, governs and builds upon technology.

On that count, Chicago’s experience may be relevant. Efforts to open government data there have led to both progress and direction, as Chicago CTO John Tolva blogged in January:

“Open data and its analysis are the basis of our permission to interject the following questions into policy debate: How can we quantify the subject-matter underlying a given decision? How can we parse the vital signs of our city to guide our policymaking? … It isn’t just app competitions and civic altruism that prompts developers to create applications from government data. 2011 was the year when it became clear that there’s a new kind of startup ecosystem taking root on the edges of government. Open data is increasingly seen as a foundation for new businesses built using open source technologies, agile development methods, and competitive pricing. High-profile failures of enterprise technology initiatives and the acute budget and resource constraints inside government only make this more appealing.”

Open data and job creation?

While realizing internal efficiencies and cost savings are key requirements for city CIOs, they don’t hold the political cachet of new jobs and startups, particularly in an election year. San Francisco is now explicitly connecting its release of open data to jobs.

“San Francisco’s open data policies are creating jobs, improving our city and making it easier for residents and visitors to communicate with government,” commented Mayor Lee, via email.

Lee is optimistic about the future, too: “I know that, at the heart of this data, there will be a lot more jobs created,” he said on Monday at the Hatchery.

Open data’s potential for job creation is also complemented by its role as a raw material for existing businesses. “This legislation creates more opportunities for the Esri community to create data-driven decision products,” said Bronwyn Agrios, a project manager at Esri, in an interview.

Esri, however, as an established cloud mapping giant, is in a different position than startups enabled by open data. Communications strategist Brian Purchia, the former new media director for former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, points to Appallicious.

Appallicious “would not have been possible with [San Francisco's] open data efforts,” said Purchia. “They have have hired about 10 folks and are looking to expand to other cities.”

The startup’s software drives the city’s new Rec & Park app, including the potential to enable mobile transactions in the next iteration.

“Motionloft will absolutely grow from our involvement in San Francisco open data,” said Motionloft CEO Mills. “By providing some great data and tools to the city of San Francisco, it enables Motionloft to develop solutions for other cities and government agencies. We’ll be hiring developers, sales people, and data experts to keep up with our plans to grow this nationwide, and internationally.”

The next big question for these startups, as with so many others in nearby Silicon Valley, is whether their initial successes can scale. For that to happen for startups that depend upon government data, other cities will not only need to open up more data, they’ll need to standardize it.

Motionloft, at least, has already moved beyond the Bay Area, although other cities haven’t incorporated its data yet. Esri, as a major enterprise provider of proprietary software to local governments, has some skin in this game.

“City governments are typically using Esri software in some capacity,” said Agrios. “It will certainly be interesting to see how geo data standards emerge given the rapid involvement of civic startups eagerly consuming city data. Location-aware technologists on both sides of the fence, private and public, will need to work together to figure this out.”

If the marketplace for civic applications based upon open data develops further, it could help with a key issue that has dogged the results of city app contests: sustainability. It could also help with a huge problem for city governments: the cost of providing e-services to more mobile residents as budgets continue to tighten.

San Francisco CIO Walton sees an even bigger opportunity for the growth of civic apps that go far beyond the Bay Area, if cities can coordinate their efforts.

“There’s lots of potential here,” Walton said. “The challenge is replicating successes like Open311 in other verticals. If you look at the grand scale of time, we’re just getting started. For instance, I use Nextbus, an open source app that uses San Francisco’s open data … If I have Nextbus on my phone, when I get off a plane in Chicago or New York City, I want to be able to use it there, too. I think we can achieve that by working together.”

If a national movement toward open data and civic apps gathers more momentum, perhaps we’ll solve a perplexing problem, mused Walton.

“In a sense, we have transferred the intellectual property for apps to the public,” he said. “On one hand, that’s great, but I’m always concerned about what happens when an app stops working. By creating data standards and making apps portable, we will create enough users so that there’s enough community to support an application.”

Related:

May 07 2011

TERRA 607: Students Saving the Ocean

STUDENTS SAVING THE OCEAN tells the story of the how the conservation community in the Bay Area comes together to improve the health and environment of the California coasts. ;Students lead the charge to explain how everyday decisions have a big impact on our oceans.
TERRA 607: Students Saving the Ocean

STUDENTS SAVING THE OCEAN tells the story of the how the conservation community in the Bay Area comes together to improve the health and environment of the California coasts. ;Students lead the charge to explain how everyday decisions have a big impact on our oceans.

April 26 2010

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