City at REST: simple APIs to interact with cities

I recently helped with a student project. The goal was to explore ways to replace the 30+ mobile apps used by New York City with a WhatsApp bot.

For most of the services, the only way to get to the info (e.g. school closures, trash collection, street parking) is to web scrape the information, which is time-consuming, error-prone and brittle. In some cases, there is an API (XML or JSON) hidden somewhere and not documented.

Instead, what if each city could offer a REST API to provide access to key information to let non-profits, private companies, civic hackers build the tools they want to build on top of this information?

This idea is not new.

  • In the UK, the mantra of GDS (Government Digital Services) is “build digital services, not websites”.
  • A few years ago while at Google, I worked on an extension of Schema.org to support the description of government services.

Open qestions

  • are you aware of cities doing this?
  • what information would you like to see in the API?
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I have played with Google’s GTFS-Realtime (on the NYC Open Data website) for transit information from the MTA and often times, I see that the data isn’t properly cleaned or is just incorrect.

More often than not, while there is some effort by companies and developers to access and understand this data, the infrastructure that is collecting this data is rusty and prone to inaccuracies.

I’d love to personally see housing information (floor plans, building types, sales records) accessible via APIs so that more people (apart from Compass, Zillow) can understand the housing situation in New York City.

Paris’ Open Data and API is dope (Arnaud!? how come you missed this?)

https://opendata.paris.fr/api/v1/console/datasets/1.0/search/

URBACT’s view on Urban Data governance includes the need for all urban data to be available via API

I deeply :heart: URBACT and strongly believe that this type of institution (with funding authority) should exist for any continental-scale Urban Tech coordination.

Imagine

  • URBACT Americas
  • URBACT Africa
  • URBACT SouthAsia
  • URBACT SE Asia

URBACT is a European Territorial Cooperation programme (ETC) aiming to foster sustainable integrated urban development in cities across Europe. It is an instrument of the Cohesion Policy, co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and by Member and Partner States.

URBACT is not an investment programme.

URBACT finances transnational exchange and learning networks.

The main aim is to enable cities to work together and develop integrated solutions to common urban challenges, by networking, learning from one another’s experiences, drawing lessons and identifying good practices to improve urban policies.

There are two different things:

  1. a programmatic access to open datasets related to the city
  2. a programmatic access to city data

For (2), I would like to have standards to make sure you can write the same code and have it work in any city. When you move from one city to another, you need to re-learn how you interact with the city.
Think about it this way: whenever you change zipcode, you need to re-learn the way you order form Amazon. That does not make sense.

Some end-points I have in mind:

  • /geo to get the shape files of the city
  • /agencies to get the list of agencies, including name, description, physical locations, social media link, names of key personnel, etc.
  • /today for today’s special announcements, including school closures, trash pick-up, etc.
  • etc.

And for each of them, we need an agreed-up set of schemas to describe the information well.

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