A new project from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency allows drivers to check out parking pricing and availability from the web or iPhone and iPad, and enables flexible pricing for the most desirable parking spots at different hours throughout the day.
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a two-day training entitled “Mapping Environmental Scenarios & Solutions with Google Technology” hosted by the Google Earth Outreach team. “Pleasure” might be something of an understatement — not only was the training very well executed by the capable and knowledgeable Earth Outreach crew, but the sheer volume of free tools and web services that they dropped on us was mindboggling. In the hopes of sharing the wealth, especially for those of us in the public sector who need all the free resources we can marshall, I’m writing this post to tell you about what I learned, in two parts. In this first post, I’ll cover the basics of the Google Maps & Earth services, as well as introduce you to some brand new tools: Fusion Tables, for managing and visualizing data, and Open Data Kit (ODK), for collecting and aggregating data. In Part II, I’ll show all the power users out there whay they can do with the Maps and Earth APIs, and finish up with some amazing odds and ends tucked away on the Google shelves.
Maps & Earth
At this point, in April of 2011, I’m assuming most of you reading this are very aware of Google Maps and Google Earth. I won’t spend much time explaining them other than to say that both have revolutionized the geospatial world, in both two and three dimensions.
I, for one, would hard-pressed to imagine life without Google Maps. Yes, there are other mapping services available, but Google Maps has always seemed to me the cleanest and tightest. Or, to borrow a phrase from Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell of SNL, Google Maps is the best, true that, Double True! But what really makes Maps stand out from the crowd is the ease with which new maps can be created and shared. At SF Environment, we use an increasing number of Google Maps to share information with a geo-location component, such as this, this, and this.
The general internet public is probably less familiar with Google Earth. With Earth, Google has created their own 3-D model of the globe, complete with rendered satellite imagery and even line models of parcels and buildings. The result is a truly immersive and very powerful tool for storytelling. I still remember being awed by Rebecca Moore’s 2006 “Logging Flyover” of the Santa Cruz Mountains that single-handedly changed public opinion about a dispute over logging rights at the time. Creating custom tours or “fly-overs” with text, links, embedded video and even audio narration does take some time but is remarkably simple. Check out a few great examples here and here.
Fusion Tables & ODK
One of the most exciting tools we covered at the training was Google’s new Fusion Tables which just may herald the dawn of web-based GIS. Born in Google Labs as an experiment in cloud data management, Fusion Tables is an attempt to combine data management and collaboration to enable “merging multiple data sources, discussion of the data, querying, visualization, and Web publishing.” Pretty cool stuff, and sorely needed.
At first glance, Fusion Tables looks like a beta version of Google Spreadsheets. The service is very new and still a little rough around the edges, but I don’t doubt that it will soon shine as do more mature Google offerings. Data can be entered directly or imported via a text file, but that’s where the similarity with Spreadsheets ends. Once your data is in, simply hit a button and you’ve got a map. Publishing to Maps is super easy, as is collaboration — all you or you collaborators need is a google account and you are good to go. If you have multiple data sources that reference the same entities, you can easily “fuse” those sources through creating “joins” without knowing how to write out SQL queries. Have a question for your collaborators about some of that fused data? Fusion Tables has built-in discussion tools.
Clearly Google is getting into the GIS game. If Fusion Tables wasn’t enough of an indicator, Google has even begun to post Fusion Tables of public data sets upon which you can build your own mapping project. My favorite? State and County boundary tables obtained from the U.S. Census Bureau and imported by the Fusion Tables team. Sweet! Google is offering an incredible service with Fusion Tables, and it looks like people are already adopting, as evidenced by some State of California data sets being stored as Fusion Tables.
What if the data you want to visualize needs to be first be collected? Open Data Kit promises to integrate these geo-location tools directly into the fieldwork so often necessary to generate data. Open Data Kit is actually a project of the University of Washington’s Change Group that is supported by Google and hosted on Google Code. This set of free and open source tools allows developers to build data collection forms for Android mobile devices. You can take the term “developer” lightly here — in one of the breakout sessions during the Earth Outreach training, we built a data collection form in a matter of minutes. Once published, users can download the ODK Collect app, call up your form, and start logging data that is immediately aggregated on a server with ODK Aggregate, ready for extraction.
Pulling all of these tools together, one possible work flow for data collection and presentation could look like this:
collect with ODK Collect >> aggregate with ODK Aggregate >> extract to Fusion Tables >> publish to Google Maps/Earth
We ran a simple exercise cataloging and mapping plants using Android phones and, while there were a few bumps, it was clear that this is an amazing way to empower your team with a full set of geo-location tools, from data collection all the way through to visualization. After the workshop, my mind was reeling with the possibilities for deploying this suite of tools. Now, if I could only find the time…
Which brings us to the end of Part I of this Google love fest. Check back soon for a deeper dive into the possibilities of Google APIs, along with a few other exciting odds and ends.
City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s Office today launched an initiative very dear to my heart, Let’s Do It SF! The anti-blight campaign brings together resources from City departments including DPW, 311 and SF Environment, as well as mobile and Web geo-tagged incident reporting from SeeClickFix and Open311, and the inspiration of an incredible campaign to clean up illegal dumping in 100 countries across the world in 2012.
The Let’s Do It SF! initiative is true Gov 2.0 in action – cross-departmental collaboration, utilizing open data principles to bring in free private sector resources, and an agile social media-fueled engagement plan. Open311, an API pioneered by the SF Department of Technology and 311 in cooperation with NY non-profit OpenPlans, enables commercial apps like SeeClickFix (it features free Web widgets and is free to download for smart phone) to integrate directly with the City’s service request ticketing system. Several apps have used Open311 to better serve San Francisco residents, and 311 also uses Facebook to take requests.
The City Attorney’s Office will be kicking off a training program for folks who live and work in San Francisco and want to learn how access 311 services and leverage mobile apps like SeeClickFix to help fight illegal dumping and graffiti vandalism. You can sign up for updates on the training program here.
“Let’s Do It!” began in 2008 in Estonia, where a small, committed group of organizers inspired 50,000 volunteers to clean their entire country in a single day. They are now planning an ambitious worldwide cleanup for 2012 (check out my podcast with Let’s Do It World organizer Irmelin Hiie here). You can sign up to help with that effort here.
At home, the City Attorney’s Office and Let’s Do It SF! volunteers will be participating this Saturday in DPW’s Clean Team event to clean and green District 6. Sign up here to join us.
Friends of OpenSF packed into mid-Market’s Mavelous last night, kicking off discussion and networking around transit-oriented innovation, tech, good government and healthy cities. The event was Third Thursdays SF, a monthly tech and civics meetup organized by OpenSF, CityCampSF, GovFresh and Gov 2.0 Radio (my “networked government” Web radio show).
City workers, local developers and progressive activists were greeted by Frank Hebbert from OpenPlans, who opened the night with a short film by Streetfilms recapping the TransportationCamp unconference held in New York earlier this month. TransportationCamp is in SF this weekend at Public Works.
In a great example of Gov 2.0 collaboration in action, City Attorney Dennis Herrera (I work in the City Attorney’s Office as an investigator) and Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White today announced SFFireApp.org, an effort to increase sudden cardiac arrest survival rates in San Francisco. The initiative seeks to successfully implement innovative mobile technology developed through the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District and released in the SF East Bay for the iPhone in late January.
Visit SFFireApp.org to learn more and get involved.
San Francisco became the first large municipality to publicly commit to implement the “Fire Department” application, which links CPR-trained volunteers, AED maps and smartphone users in an effort to save lives in the first few minutes after cardiac arrest. Last year, only 10 percent of sudden cardiac arrest victims in SF survived to admission in the hospital. The initiative may also save public health dollars by reducing injury to survivors.
“San Ramon has less than 100 sudden cardiac arrests a year, and for this application to have a meaningful impact on society we need to extend it to larger jurisdictions,” said SRVFPD Chief Richard Price. “We are extremely pleased to be partnering with San Francisco today to extend this life-saving tool to the city as soon as possible.”
In case you missed it on Sunday, the New York Times had a great article on the importance of government-published open data and its benefits to business and community. The article, by Richard H. Thaler of the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, singled out the pioneering efforts of San Francisco’s government and developers:
For some years, Bay Area transit systems had been tracking the locations of their trains and buses via onboard GPS. Then someone got the bright idea to post that information in real time. Thus the delightful app Routesy was born. Install it on a smartphone and the app can tell you that your bus is stuck in traffic and will be 10 minutes late — or it can help you realize that you are standing on the wrong street, dummy. It gives consumers a great new way to find out when and where the bus is coming, and all at minimal government expense.
As reported on Twitter, Gov 2.0 Radio and FedScoop on Wednesday, former SF CIO Chris Vein has decamped for Washington, DC, where he is the new deputy CTO for innovation.
Gov tech pubs have been abuzz with the news.
More at InformationWeek.
On the Code for America blog, Jennifer Pahlka discusses how Vein was instrumental in supporting Civic Commons and CfA. “I’m happy to see Chris and his commitment to change join the other innovators in the White House, all of whom have inspired our work,” Pahlka writes.
The National Association of Communications Officers and Advisors also did a nice write-up on the promotion for its longtime member: “This is an outstanding appointment,” said NATOA Executive Director Steve Traylor. “And it’s an important recognition by the Obama Administration of the importance of local government efforts in technology and broadband innovation.”
Good luck to Chris in his new role!