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Apps for Amsterdam

What is the route of the garbage truck? Is the soil near the day nursery, where children play outdoors, polluted? Where are the most dangerous crossings? Developers are challenged to create apps that are useful to Amsterdammers while giving a boost to the local economy. For the purpose of this initiative, the government will release new data.

On 16 February, the AppsforAmsterdam competition will be launched, offering prizes of up to 2,500 euros to developers who can build an application that uses government data and offers concrete benefits to Amsterdammers. The initiative is related to the open data movement, which wants governments to make the wealth of information they dispose of available to anyone who wants to put it to use.

Traditionally, Dutch governments are far less inclined to share their data than other countries. As part of AppsforAmsterdam, an attempt will be made to ‘pry open’ a number of local data sources.

Lex Slaghuis of Hack de Overheid, initiator of the initiative along with De Waag and the Amsterdam Municipality: “The most interesting information is geo data, that’s really the Holy Grail. Municipalities have detailed maps of their territory. That’s interesting stuff for OpenStreetMap and for TomTom, but also for example for a programmer who wants to make an application that helps you find your nearby bakery.”

There are talks with municipal departments including the Zoning Department, the Environment and Construction Inspection Department and the Traffic and Transportation Infrastructure Department. They could provide information on locations where the soil is polluted or a road map containing the ‘black spots’ where many accidents happen. Slaghuis is also interested in the infrared aerial photo of Amsterdam, which provides insight in heat loss due to poor roof insulation.

Up to date departure times

However, will the company that took this photo be willing to cooperate? “A problem with government data is that sometimes partners are involved who claim they own copyrights. Sometimes, contracts have not really been well conceived in this respect, but often it turns out that this has unwittingly been dealt with in the general conditions of purchase (of governments). There is a number of court rulings and those suggest that such information is covered by the Freedom of Information Act”, Slaghuis explains.

Open data has become a political issue as well. Today, Werner Toonk (VVD) and Carlien Roodink (D66) presented a council initiative calling on the government to make all data public in the future in principle. First of all, the gps locations of buses and trams must be made available. This will allow programmers to make an application showing exactly at what time the next tram will depart.

“In view of the public transport budget cuts that have been announced, Amsterdammers more than ever need adequate up to date information on arrival and departure times”, the authors of the plan argue.

Last year, Thijs Kleinpaste (D66) and Stefan de Bruijn (VVD) proposed to publish data of the Centrum District. First of all, data from the budget must be made available, according to the proposal that has been adopted by the district government.

27 billion euros

Slaghuis thinks publishing budget data is a good idea, for this will make it possible in the future to compare governments. There is of course the problem of governments using inconsistent definitions. “That’s correct”, he replies, “but there will only be a debate on this once the data are public. Then you’ll run into strange inconsistencies, and people will say: but that’s because different definitions are used. In the long term, aligning those definitions will be far more efficient.”

Slaghuis is convinced that it is not only fundamentally better to make government data available, but that doing so also helps the economy and results in government savings. The European Union has calculated that those savings may amount to 27 billion euros. The Netherlands, being an advanced economy, will account for a relatively large share of these potential savings, Slaghuis expects.

However, AppsforAmsterdam is primarily about putting government data to practical use. A number of people are already considering participating in the competition. In general, it is often students and the self-employed who participate in such initiatives. “If an application is successful, sometimes commercial parties join in.” Participants are free to develop an app for the iPhone, Android, Facebook, the Web or any other platform of their choosing.

Information on AppsforAmsterdam

4 February 2011 |