This article arises from Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University. On Sept. 6, Future Tense will join Aventura Capital Partners in Mexico City to host a conference on the “mobile city,” exploring how to make government information freely available to the public.
Having recently moved to a new city, I turn to Yelp whenever I am in need of a new restaurant, store, or even a refrigerator repairman. But as I learned the hard way, while Yelp can help me find the best calamari, it won’t tell me whether the restaurant has been spanked by the local health department.
Meanwhile, Yelp is filled with reviews that detail horrifying sanitation conditions at restaurants and bed-bug infestations at hotels. And yet these businesses’ doors remain open because the local health department isn’t using the more than 30 million user reviews on Yelp to target their inspections. A small sampling:
“Bed Bugs (+not doing anything about it). STAY AWAY” —Yelp San Francisco
“2 people in my party had to go to the hospital because they got bit by bed bugs! ….. If you care about your health at all DO NOT STAY HERE! “—Yelp New York City
“Roach was crawling on the table right when they served the food. I jumped up and said, ‘ROACH’ and bunch of servers were trying to grab it. Needless to say, I was disgusted. They offer me free dinner and dessert for me and my friend but I never returned to that location.”—Yelp Los Angeles
Around the world, Yelp and local governments collect complementary data, intended to help would-be customers make decisions about where to spend their money and what to put in their stomachs. Yet that information isn’t available in a central location, and that is creating a knowledge gap for consumers. And customers aren’t the only ones who can benefit from better crunching of ratings and reviews information. Building partnerships with companies that generate user content is an easy way for our cities to get free feedback on their services. What if government took a user-centered design approach to service delivery? They could use feedback provided on thousands of sites to identify what citizens want from their cities—and where to begin fixing things.
Cities are beginning to embrace the idea of opening data to the public. Last month, four major cities—San Francisco, New York City, Chicago, and Seattle—put statistics on things like crime reports, restaurant ratings, bed bug complaints, and public restroom locations online at cities.data.gov. Yelp and Google still can’t use the data easily, but the move signals that the cities are interested in putting their information in the hands of those who can mold it.
The phrase “local government data” may make your eyes glaze, but those databases cover every municipal service we use daily. For example, a major frustration in urban centers is the amount of time spent trying to find a parking spot. To address this problem and improve air quality, San Francisco launched SFPark, a project that put sensors into 7,000 metered spaces and 12,250 in city garages. When one car leaves, the sensors communicate wirelessly with computers that in turn make the information available, in close to real-time. Now, imagine if Google or your car GPS used that data to show you where to find empty parking spots near an address you searched.
Or consider the Bike Accident Tracker, a tool created by the Bay Citizen that mapped all reported bicycling accidents in San Francisco over a five-year period. On the map, the intersection of Market and Castro was identified as a hot spot because it had five or more reported accidents. For cyclists, having access to this data is critical when planning routes to work or just getting from A to B in the city. Just this past April a cyclist hit and killed a pedestrian at that same intersection, according the San Francisco Chronicle. If accident data were integrated with a site like Google Maps, making the critical information more easily available, is it possible that the deadly accident at Market and Castro could have been avoided? I'm not sure, but it's worth looking into.