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LA hopes 'Hacktivists' will turn city data into user-friendly apps

Student hackers from Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights participated in the Hack For LA competition.
Student hackers from Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights participated in the Hack For LA competition.
Courtesy of Hack For LA

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This story is part of Project Citizen, a KPCC series that looks at the rights, responsibilities, traditions and privileges that come along with being a citizen.

Since taking office last July, Mayor Eric Garcetti has promised transparency in government. One of the ways he’s hoping to make that happen is by posting details about the city’s operations online to make information available to the public anytime, anywhere.

Imagine firing up an app on your cell phone that identifies the most dangerous intersections in the city; An app that warns you when a restaurant has been cited for health code violations in the past year; or when a city official gives a contract to someone who donated to their campaign.

All of this and more is theoretically possible, but city officials can’t just stick Excel sheets online and hope people understand them. That’s why they need hackers — not identity thieves, but more the app-making, number-crunching, do-gooder types.

“The idea here is that there are a lot of concepts that folks would like to see that the city isn’t providing, [and hackers will] build an application around it,” said Steve Reneker, Chief Technology Officer for the City of LA.

L.A. needs its data turned into usable apps, and it's trying do some of the work on its own. But it doesn't have the resources to do everything. So, recently, computer wizards gathered for a city-sponsored competition called Hack for LA.

And they had some good ideas for how they’d use the city's info. But before any apps are possible, there are a number of problems that the city of L.A. needs to get past.

One of the big ones is getting city staffers to input accurate information. 

"That old saying, 'Garbage in, garbage out,' is absolutely true," said Jay Nath, chief innovation officer for the City of San Francisco. "People will make mistakes, so we need to use technology in a smart way to prevent those errors from getting into our systems."

San Francisco has already implemented the same interactive system L.A. plans to use, and it’s taken a couple of years to get rolling. But Nath says they saw real results once they got their act together.

For example, they created an app that saved the city about a million dollars just around public transportation. It tells people when buses are going to show up, so fewer people are calling the city to ask when the next bus is coming.

"We’ve seen this flowering of applications available, and just the number of calls going into our call center diminished dramatically," Nath said. 

Another challenge for cities that want to be more transparent: the information has to be manageable for both the creators and the users.

“Scaling is the biggest issue that this movement is dealing with," said Christine Outram, a technology innovator who has helped cities around the world design open data systems.

She sees L.A.’s 3-1-1 app as being less than effective. Users are supposed to be able to use the app to report anything from broken traffic lights to illegal trash dumping. According to the city, 19,000 people have downloaded the app since last April, and about 3,000 service requests are being filed monthly. 

“L.A.’s a great example," Outram said. "You tag your issue and you send it off into the ether and you have no idea what’s going on. And that’s because, on the back end, the city hasn’t worked out how this app integrates into the services and process and differences of government departments." 

In that case, users are left to wonder if their problem has been fixed.

“The issues are dealt with, but there’s just no transparency about when they’ll be dealt with, how they’ll be dealt with, how they’re prioritized," she said. 

That relates to one more problem: Getting hackers — the crucial folks who the success of this system depends on — to buy into actually making the apps.

“There’s an assumption that you can build it and they will come," said Arione Hardison, one of the hacktivists who showed up for L.A.'s test run. "That government could put out data and people could come and build stuff, but it really doesn’t work like that. It’s nice to release data sets, but you have to have a way to turn that data into knowledge and then get that knowledge to people in an actionable manner.”  

The hackers said the city's data was disorganized and poorly labeled. And when data isn’t easy to use, hackers don’t want anything to do with it. The good news is that if the City of L.A. gets organized and provides some interesting information, hackers like Arione will gladly take it on. 

That could lead to partnerships with big companies, like what happened in its rival city up north.

“We had a recent partnership with Yelp where we standardized our restaurant hygiene scores and made that available, and they’ve now incorporated that into their website," said the city of San Francisco's Nath. "So if you go on their website, you can see what the score of that restaurant is before you go dine there.”  

But until L.A.'s data can be turned into usable apps, the future of the city's experiment with digital democracy is up in the air.