Monday, October 5, 2009

If You Love Your Data, Set It Free (Free, Free, Set It Free)

It's ironic that the week that SingTel breaks third party-apps that use its data is the same week that the mayor of San Francisco launches a contest to encourage third-party developers to take the city’s data and do something useful with it. For the contest, San Francisco has released more than 100 datasets at, ranging from crime incident data to post office locations.

The idea behind the contest is a great one. Governments have data. Citizens have the means to turn that data into useful information. Governments can create useful applications by releasing datasets and allowing developers to be innovative. Sure a government agency could commission an app but then you only get one app. Freeing the data, on the other hand, allows developer ingenuity to take it places no bureaucrat could envisage. 

The idea behind a contest riding on "citizen driven innovation" started in Washington DC last year and was tremendously successful. In 30 days, it resulted in 47 web, iPhone and Facebook apps, which the city valued at $2.3 million but which cost the city just $50,000. With returns like this, it is no surprise that the concept is gaining momentum which is why San Francisco and New York have jumped onto the bandwagon.

This is something that Singapore can learn from. So far, Singapore has done a great job in creating useful online government services, from tax filing to business registration. However, Singapore's government agencies can do more. They have lots of data that would be of immense use if it were easily available to consumers. For example, how cool would it be to have an app that tells you where to find available parking spots in the city within a certain radius from you, or from your destination? The LTA already has a Parking Guidance System that collects data on available parking spots in the Orchard and Marina area. That information is displayed on giant electronic billboards along roads in the city. Why not make the data available for developers to harness? Isn't it the aim to get that information out?

And it's not just government agencies that have useful data. Private companies have useful information too. Apart from SingTel's data usage database, there are things like SBS Transit's bus arrival times and Shaw and Golden Village’s movie screening times. 

But hang on, you say. There are already a bunch of apps that provide information about bus arrival times like SG Buses and tranSGuide. And there are also a few apps that do local movie schedules. It's true that these apps exist, but they work despite the original data provider, not because of them. Most of these apps tap onto the database without the explicit consent of the data provider. And because of that, these apps suffer when there is a change on the backend that does not take them into consideration, as was the case with SingTel last week. And sometimes, data providers actively block apps the way SBS Transit did when it blocked the neat web app NextBus in May this year. (Read the depressing account here; scroll down to the entry Giving up on NextBus).

We know that the Singapore government is making all the right noises. The government's latest IT master plan, iN2015, envisions Singapore as an "An Intelligent Nation, A Global City, powered by Infocomm."  Infocomms will be extensively harnessed to enable innovation and iN2015 will "fuel creativity and innovation among businesses and individuals by providing an infocomm platform that supports enterprise and talent," says the master plan.

With regard to future government services, the aim is to "enhance the quality of e-services ("richness") and increase their adoption and usage ("reach") according to the related iGov2010 plan.

Good stuff, all of this. Now let’s see it being put into practice. If government agencies really want to “fuel creativity and innovation”, if they really want to "build an infocomm platform that supports enterprise and talent", if they really want to "enhance the quality of e-services and increase their adoption and usage", they need to release datasets and APIs. Data should be given away so that developers can mash up the data to provide new types of information that citizens and consumers will find useful. At the same time, government agencies and companies get to reach out to more people.

And frankly, it’s not like it would be a big gamble. Despite a less than friendly environment, local developers have already made cool apps that take publicly available information and mash it up.
On the iPhone platform, tranSGuide and SG Buses take bus arrival times and mash that up with location awareness so you can easily tell what time your bus will arrive at the bus stop you’re at. Trafficam SG rearranges traffic camera images so that it works better on the iPhone. BuUuk and HungryGoWhere are location aware restaurant guides. TrafficAlert takes LTA traffic alerts and mashes it up with crowd-sourced data about traffic jams, leveraging on the GPS capabilities of the iPhone. Apps like SG BBOM, iBBOM and Singtel Data Usage take (or used to take in the case of SG BBOM) SingTel’s plain vanilla data usage data and add new functionality, like estimating how much data you have left for the rest of the month. 

All this was done without access to API's or official datasets. If this is what local developers can do without official support, just imagine what they might dream up if they actually had access to the right tools.

(Thanks to Hon Cheng, Kumar, Meiwin and Chu Yeow for reading an early draft and giving me valuable comments and suggestions.)

Related stories

Note: For another take on this issue, check out Lucian Teo’s blog post based on the Gov 2.0 summit he attended in Washington DC. He nicely points out how the Singapore government is using a 1.0 mindset in a 2.0 era.


Mugunth Kumar said...

The link to Lucian Teo's blog post misses a "p". It's broken now.

Jimmy Yap said...

Fixed, thanks! And thanks especially for your suggestion to look at iN2015.

sakina said...

Great article and good points raised. Both the government and private sectors will benefit by releasing their data.

Krazykid said...

It looks likely that the Singapore government would prefer their statutory boards to be at least revenue-neutral if not positive. With this in mind, it's not going to be really easy to get data from them "for free".

Jimmy Yap said...

Well, since the apps themselves have value, by releasing data, they are allowing developers to create apps of value that the Government doesn't have to pay for. Just like how the contest in DC cost $50,000 to run but resulted in over $2 million worth of apps.

Hopefully, that is how they will see it.

Krazykid said...

I would hope they see it that way too.

However, the Devil's Advocate (imagine I'm a stat board) says wouldn't it be more financially rewarding for me if I paid a small, struggling startup to develop an app, then sell it to the public or provide it free but with ads. That way, I hopefully get a positive revenue stream.

Giving away the data makes it financially painful locally (i.e. for the stat board in question) but globally, it could help stimulate more uses for the data and provide a broader economic impact with the government gaining (revenue) indirectly with increased takings from corporate taxes (if the app becomes wildly successful etc).

The trick is for the owner of the data (the statutory board) to see past his _own_ immediate loss of revenue and look towards a more diffuse but possibly greater positive impact on the _whole_ economy.

It's like... I know that to help save the environment I should drive less but I can't do that successfully because I can't see past my own inconvenience. Need to cultivate the "Less of me, more of others" thinking :-)

Mugunth Kumar said...

//Giving away the data makes it financially painful locally//
Companies should earn money for the service they provide, not for the data they hold. For example, SBS should make money from providing public transport and not thru IRIS.

How many people do you think, "really" check iris next bus thru SMS? but there are more people who check it thru the various iPhone Apps. Because it's free and people expect these things to be free.

They still can make money by "licensing" the data for a nominal cost to developers.

Jimmy Yap said...

Details about New York City's app contest here.