Open My City Project Retrospective

This project started as the brainchild of the Pioneers, a group of “innovative thinkers at the frontier of active citizenship.” Brought together by the great people at Humanity in Action and Felix Meritas, and supported by the Dutch government as part of the NY400, 20 Amsterdam and 20 New York City “P!oneers” set out to tackle the issues facing our societies.

The initial ideas broke into 4:

  1. Alternative Histories – working with educators to amplify marginalized voices to tell their own history
  2. P!oneer Network – finding other P!oneers & expanding the ability to think openly
  3. Ministry of the Impossible – re-imagining what is possible in society, politics, & culture by locating “impossible” but note-worthy tasks
  4. Open My City – Imagine what you’d like to know about your city and then describe what you would do with that information.

The goal of the project was to get community organizations to answer: “If I knew this… I could do that”. How do people see their community and how would they rather see it? Is there a way for government transparency to usher in a new era of civic participation? Founded by Andrew Rasiej, Baratunde Thurston, Andrew Hoppin, Corline Van Es, Dr. Andrew Rasmussen, and myself, it was an exciting start to the project.

I spent time presenting this project at conferences on both US coasts and around the world – from Participation Camp to Barcamp Yerevan. 20 summer Humanity in Action volunteers interviewed dozens of community organizations in New York City, including Posse Foundation and Global Action ProjectNew York City District 6 Councilwoman Gale Brewar has been at the forefront of “better use of technology to save money, improve City services, and bring residents, businesses and non-profits closer to government and their communitie” and her support has been an important addition to this and other Open Government discussions in NYC.

As the project developed and as the conversations grew, here are some of the answers that followed:

*    If I knew government spending on social services    <->    I could create a map to inform newly resettled refugees of the best access to services for their community.
*    If I knew the leaders of community centers and churches in my neighborhood    <->    I could invite them to my coop board meeting to talk about building mutually beneficial community relationships
*    If I knew who owns the 1.2 million sqaure meters of empty office space in Amsterdam    <->    I could my best to convince them to open their doors to those in need of space
*    If I knew The history of past rents for my apartment and those like it    <->    I could find out if i’m being overcharged and possibly save a tone of money
*    If I knew which buildings with a good floor were empty    <->    I would organize silent discos and hit-and-run milongas
*    If I knew how to find living space in Amsterdam via the official ways    <->    I could live legally in my own home-town
*    If I knew of Free municipal Portuguese language classes in my neighborhood (lower Manhattan    <->    I could volunteer on Saturdays as a mentor to the newly resettled immigrant Brazilian students we recently interviewed in Astoria, Queens, for TRACE magazine
*    If I knew what services were available to New York City public school students in the private sector    <->    I could facilitate the creation of a database that would be available to students, families, educators, city officials, and everyone else.
*    if i knew who all is in need of creative input/ideas    <->    i would happily put my mind to work
*    If I knew which elderly people were lonely    <->    I could help them connect to young people with time and an ear for their life stories
*    If I knew what citizens wanted and needed in their daily lives    <->    I would be a better representative and politician by focusing on people
*    If I knew where all the camera’s in public spaces in Amsterdam are    <->    I could orgaise a public spectacle using each and every one of them
*    If I knew (more about) the government’s/ municipality’s vision on arts and innovation and how they support these fields    <->    I could come up with ways to influence this vision and benefit from this knowledge
*    If I knew who in my neighbourhood doesn’t know how to use their computer to type documents or use the internet    <->    i would help them with a few friends to explain it
*    If I knew what created sustainable collaboration across political party boundaries     <->    I would get elected officials in my city to reduce homelessness
*    If I knew how to arrange the necessary city permits,    <->    I could (help) to realize more community and public art projects
*    If I knew where to put my trash (including and especially cardboard boxes)    <->    I would be able to prevent being fined or arrested
*    If I knew how to get $ for municipal projects    <->    I could pay for food, tools & supplies to do neighborhood clean up.
*    If I knew wich idiot decided to take away the soccer field for the kids..    <->    I would tell Johan Cruijff so he would open a Cruijff court for my neighbourkids

Word cloud from text provided from “If I knew this… I could do that” public entries. Clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently.

Data is still something that people find it difficult to wrap their heads around. One of our biggest challenges was the cognitive leap it takes for people to be able to answer “If I knew this… I could do that.” Matt Cooperrider, the organizer of many of New York’s Open Government projects, and I spent some time trying to hash out a “man on the street” strategy to bring in more people than exist in our existing civic and non-profit networks. Getting people to know what they don’t know, understand what they could know, then postulate what they’d do if they knew that, proved to be more difficult than initially anticipated.

Matching available government data with social groups is a bit easier, but requires a level of transparency that most institutions still find uncomfortable. In NYC, initiatives culminated with  our initial goal – the release of a Data Mine NYC, supplying many (though not all or even most) sets of public data produced by City agencies. Despite the newly launched Data Mine, having only 120 available data sets was an underwhelming amount to some, certainly limiting the ability to have a breadth of new project ideas. There is even a competition, NYC BigApps, to turn that data into useful applications for the people of the City. Graffitti awareness, restaurant inspections, taxi ratings and other ideas that come from a very specific demographic of programmers. To really target marginalized communities and make information technologies work for the city as a whole, they need to be brought into the conversation.

At the second installment of P!oneers, the ideas behind Open My City evolved into Open My Story. Combining with many of the ideas from Alternative Histories as well, the project turned interactive civics program. Here’s the pitch: This photography based program gives marginalized youth a transatlantic lens into the past, interaction in the present, and plan for the future. What are youth perspectives on their communities? What do they want to see it become? It provides a lens into a potential future based on the needs that they see. Ideas are then exhibited in the city to broaden the discussion. Utilizing new media tools youth can now become engaged players in the civic process & create the community they want to see. The cross-Atlantic platform is Project Roebling, which is currently being developed by Digital Democracy, in partnership with MIT & Eyebeam. There is a striking lack of FOSS (free and open source software) in the educational sphere and it’s exciting to be a pioneer in the field.

Stay tuned as the project continues to develop!


  1. November 29, 2009 at 4:27 am · Reply

    What a stunning list of “If I knew” and “I would do.” It’s exciting to read such a thorough recap of the Pioneers projects and Open My Story in particular … I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes.

  2. Pingback: Future Now: NYC’s Digital Storybook « 6 to cut, 4 to sharpen

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