“I’m an idea thief” – Open Data and the Gold Coast.

There’s talk of the new Mudgeeraba Councillor being some sort of IT guru tech head. Apparently he can hack local council datasets blindfolded, produce apps with his hands tied behind his back using only his nose and a keyboard, and take the outcomes to market online to turn the Council cashflow positive.

It’s all a lie. Truth is, I’m probably just an idea thief.

I love this concept that our city can collaborate for a better future. It’s a bit idealistic, maybe even naïve, but I’ve come across enough sharp IT operators in only a few short months, and enough examples globally of super outcomes using datasets of government, to be sure the Gold Coast can lead the way when it comes to enhancing the way the citizen engages with their community assets and government. What I love to do is take the ideas of the best practice across Australia and the globe and advocate for action locally, thieving those ideas for the benefit of the city I love, and want my kids to inherit.

Is that too romantic?

It seems less romantic when we realise how achievable it is to see potential gains when we carefully consider our data assets. Within weeks of taking office, I started to talk up the idea of the Council’s data being an underutilised asset or resource that could be put to better use as a revenue generator or economic stimulus. The result of that lobbying I’m hoping will be the first Hackfest delivered by the largest non-political Council in Australia. Effectively, our $1.5B company, whose shareholders are the residents of the Gold Coast, and company directors are the Councillors, is getting close to making some of their data available for the community benefit. That’s actually pretty cool, given how risk averse we are. Our maps, library data, river and creek flood levels, road engineering data, asset patronage records, rubbish collection data, and parking meter data could all be up for grabs.

Before I clarify that, and to ensure we don’t set unrealistic expectations, let me talk about what’s happening around the world, and what’s happening on our doorstep.

 I want to start with a program recently kicked off in the states called Code for America. Their mission states; (We help) governments work better for everyone with the people and the power of the web. We’re building a network of cities, citizens, community groups, and startups, all equally committed to re-imagining government for the 21st century”.

Basically, a bunch of experienced tech-heads got together and decided to do something to help bureaucratic governments become more participatory in nature. Without getting into too much about their philosophy (you can find out more at codeforamerica.org), the obligations of interested cities are to identify projects that have real cost savings for the city, promote transparency and community participation, and then manoeuvre around bureaucratic and financial obstacles to deliver the outcomes. These outcomes are driven by a fellowship of the best graduate techies of the year, who rather than jumping straight into entry level roles in your big city corporate entity, take a year to code for local government. Code for America is a new-ish non-profit, funded by corporates and philanthropists, including google, in conjunction with local governments and epitomises for me what would be ideal for the Gold Coast.

So, you might ask, what does that have to do with us…

Let’s take a look at some of the local government outcomes that have been driven by the Code for America program.

  1. Textizen – Textizen asks questions on posters in public places, then collects citizen feedback by text message. It’s essentially a community feedback tool gaining responses from a greater cross-section of the community. It allows governments to target a community they’re seeking feedback from utilising a traditional marketing method and technology based filing/analysis system. Textizen.com can tell you more.
  2. 311Labs – a 311 is a non-emergency call to the public sector for attention to a community issue. The number is commonly used across US and Canada. 311 Labs developed an public online tracking system integrated with receipt of the call so citizens could keep in the loop about issues that might have been raised. Often our Gold Coast call centre gets multiple calls for the same issue so an application like this could save money in our call centres and keep residents informed about the status of a common issue. Open311.org is the place for more info.
  3. One fun example was Iconathon. 6 events were held in cities from the east coast to the west over a year, collaborating with participants to devise next generation icons to identify aspects of the new urban environment. In the states, examples were gluten-free food locations, bikeshares and public rooftop gardens. Find out more at iconathon.org

All of these sorts of applications of open data or collaborative solutions could be applied to our system of government, and perhaps to our city. They’re pretty simple and I’m sure we can apply the principle to tailor solutions to our own problems.

So what is actually happening locally!?! There’s quite a few initiatives to choose from in varying complexities but here’s three examples where Open Data could really push ideas along!

First example is floodwatch.com.au. Local programmer from West Mudgeeraba, Steve Davis, scrapes data from BOM relating to the height of Mudgeeraba Creek at Austinville Rd and sends a text message to residents (subscribers) when the road is submerged, according to the creek levels. This data is scraped at a 30 minute delay due to the data not being released real-time. Also, Steve pays for the text messages himself! This is an example of where Open Data could not only better inform the public but it could also become a model rolled out to other creeks and ultimately monetized by subscription or sponsorship to mitigate the costs to the developer. Ironically, we actually have this real-time data mechanism in place but don’t release it to the public.

Fixmystreet is a web application from the UK that allows citizens to locate a problem they’ve identified on a map, add an image of the issue, and then the app contacts the Council on the citizen’s behalf. It sounds pretty simple but the value is the visibility of common issue and public access to the status of the issue, not dissimilar to 311 Labs I mentioned earlier. Fixmystreet has recently been launched for delivery in NSW and local Gold Coast developers have put their hands up to see it launched right here in our city. We’re just trying to get the right maps released and integrate them with the program so the project can be delivered.

Finally, I mentioned the Hackfest before and it’s one of several initiatives Council is delivering to the IT industry to help build and grow the sector. I’ve put a list of our Economic Development activities around the room and I encourage you to have a read. For the record, Economic Development spotted me the venue tonight. Anyway, we’re hoping to hold the Hackfest in conjunction with a National GovHack and we’re working with Open Australia on the concept. I’m chatting to Pia Waugh (who was instrumental in securing Sir Tim Berners-Lee for his Australian tour) about best practice in her experience and I hope it will be a great opportunity to see the best the Gold Coast has to offer in the coding and programming sector of the IT industry.

I’ll finish up with saying I’d love to give everyone the opportunity to celebrate successes together. It’s such an important part of this journey. Sir Tim Berners Lee made a critical comment during his recent visit that I was quick to tweet;

#tbldownunder: creating communities of coders/programmers and a sense of exclusivity is as important as the data itself. #gov2au relevant?

— Cr Glenn Tozer (@GlennontheGC) February 2, 2013

Silicon Beach and the team behind the group, along with the IT Forum Gold Coast and other local businesses appear to be doing a pretty good job at creating this community at a grassroots level and the sector can be assured of my support, and hopefully that of Gold Coast City Council, to promote wins of your business or startups through social media or the traditional media.

I hope 2013 can be the year we start to see a public awareness of the already growing industry and that can platform the sector to further wins and continue to see the diversification of our economy on the Gold Coast that we need if we’re serious about global relevance and meeting the long-term demands of our growing city.

 Please contact my office on 5581 1883 or the team in Economic Development if we can help drive your idea along.

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