Civic apps will make it big in 2013, says Haidee Bell
Want to live an easier city life? There's (most likely) an app for that.
As urban dwellers, we are increasingly accustomed to navigating our daily lives through the use of digital tools. We get around quicker with Bus Checker or cab-calling app Hailo, plan our walking routes with Walk It, book our entertainment through Toptable and discover new cities with apps like I Amsterdam.
And city authorities are also creating smarter digital offers which add value to existing public services, create new interfaces with citizens and often use real-time information to match provision more effectively with demand. Through our Make it Local programme, Nesta has supported authorities to create new citizen-oriented digital services based on newly open data: Sutton Book Share stimulates lending of books between residents of Sutton and Edinburgh Outdoors maps the city's parks and green spaces and offers routes for exploring historic trees, monuments and other features.
One challenge for many of these services, which are often commissioned with local scope, is knowing how to scale them. How can a service created for one city break into the mainstream? And in turn can this lead to the emergence of new growth businesses focussed on tech for social good?
My forecast is that in 2013, we're set to see many more of these locally-created applications scale as vital elements of our public services provision.
Several developments are prompting this:
The first is that cities are getting better at working together to solve common problems, supported by infrastructures such as the Code for America Commons in the US which operates like a community-driven app store to share technology for public good. Nesta is leading a campaign for reuse of digital civic innovations as partner in a new organisation Code for Europe and we're seeking to leverage this platform across European cities, sharing projects and code to spread value to elsewhere. Just recently St Michaels Bookshare has launched through an application of the source code from our pilot in Sutton.
Secondly, more projects are finding sustainable business models in this market. SeeClickFix, an application created in 2008 in New Haven, Connecticut to mobilise people to fix their streets in return for 'civic points', is now operating for profit across thousands of communities. Their business model is based on advertising revenue and sales of a software dashboard to municipalities for managing their customer-response services. In the UK, more attention is being given to accelerating technology start-ups delivering social impact through programmes like Bethnal Green Ventures and Nesta's own Impact Investment Fund.
Finally, citizen data feeds are providing the missing ingredient in creating really useful services, largely enabled through technologies which enable passive data collection (that which requires little attention or input from users). 'Citizen sensors' in apps like Street Bump (a crowd-sourcing project in which volunteers collect road condition data while they drive) or Saga (which uses sensors already embedded in phones to record our whereabouts and suggest places to visit based on our histories) are leading to increasingly intelligent, quasi-bespoke services. Passive data collection will become especially relevant in the healthcare industry and we are close to applications which connect personal data technologies like Fitbit and platforms like Open Sen.se with our health service.
So if you are dreaming of a day when we all have access to simple tools for navigating public life and which make it easy to take part in it, it may be just around the corner.