So you’ve decided to join the ranks of civic hackers and launch a mobile app or website for your community. The open data initiative is still evolving, and sometimes riding the bleeding edge of a new idea means defining the rules as you go. But be sure you don’t let this “Wild West” mentality trip you up. It is exciting to be a part of this new blending of technologies with growing cooperation between civic organizations and private enterprise, but if you don’t follow a few rules, you can end up with a lot more headache and disappointment than success. Here are five tips to help your engagement with the new initiative for open data to become a rewarding experience for you and your community.
ONE: Don’t Assume All Data Is Free For The Taking
Whether you are setting out to launch a website to track water flow in your city’s sewer system or launch an app that reports restaurant health inspections, it is important to know that not all information provided by your community’s civic organizations is free for the taking. Open Data does not mean open season. Government agencies are often regulated by local, state and federal authorities, meaning that much of the information you find online is tightly controlled for quality and integrity and not available for private use. Using information that is not part of an official open data set can lead to serious consequences, including legal action against you by the agencies involved, so checking thoroughly whether you are allowed to use specific data is paramount.
TWO: Just Because You Can Copy and Paste Doesn’t Mean You Can
Once you’ve verified you are allowed to use the data required for your project, it can be quite tempting to make your tool look as official as possible. After all, you’re using official information, and you want the people using your app to be comfortable with your tool. Don’t give in to that temptation. Create a look and feel all your own to make sure you aren’t mistaken for the official department or organization whose data you are using. Why? Two reasons. First, if you’re doing all the work, then create and protect your own brand. Second, icons, images, and even color combinations on a website can be trademarked, and if you are using officially trademarked or branded material, you’ll likely find yourself in almost as much hot water as if you used unauthorized information. All civic agencies are accountable not only to the citizens who use their services but also to myriad regulatory agencies, and if your tool looks too official, civic organizations will end up fielding complaints for content that they cannot control – something that can lead to real problems for their department. So embrace your own branding and style and save yourself a lot of head aches and possible legal problems.
THREE: Open Data Doesn’t Always Need “An App For That”
Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Be sure you keep your end user in mind before you spend a lot of time, effort and money creating a new website or mobile app using open data. Finding an open data set that is free for the using and branding your tool in your own style isn’t enough to create a successful product. If you want to make sure that your user base extends beyond your mom, your buddies and yourself, be sure your tool solves a problem for your community or provides an easier or faster solution. Not all open data sets are suited for end-user tools, so choose wisely.
FOUR: Don’t Use Open Data In A Vacuum
This may come as a surprise to you, but civic organizations are not all that keen on surprises – especially when it comes to new projects using their information. Really, they’re not. Not at all. Seriously. Let’s hope you’re picking up on the vibe here. Take the time to notify organizations that you are launching a new tool using their open data. This is not one of those “ask-forgiveness-is-easier-than-asking-permission” moments. And here is the good news: because they’ve opted into an open data initiative, the civic organization whose data you are using will likely welcome your tool and even help spread the news. So save your surprises for Valentine’s Day and birthdays and make sure you give all the necessary people plenty of notice about your new project.
FIVE: Think Outside The Box
Do we really need thirty apps that all solve the same problem for one community? Probably not. Actually … definitely not. Think about unique ways to utilize open data. Can you add a fun twist or come up with a creative way to deliver the information that will make it fresh and different enough to stand out in the crowd? Don’t take the easy, most straightforward route to launching your open data tool. Take your time and make sure that not only will you be proud of your finished project but that the community will also embrace and recommend it to their neighbors. Open data can change the way we interact with our community – but only if we take the time to be creative in our approach.
And there you have it: five tips to get you started on the right path as a civic hacker. Have a civic tool you’ve already created with open data? Join the conversation and tell us what you’ve created. We’ve been working with civic organizations since the inception of the open data initiative, and now we’re readying our own initiative which will help civic hackers everywhere through a set of tools to make your goals easier to accomplish and your products more successful and sustainable. We see the potential for innovation which open data brings, and we’re excited to see where it leads those of us who have opted in to be a part of changing the way we interact with our communities.