iPhone app

The Value of Open Data

SF Weekly This San Francisco Chronicle article tells the story well: city government makes bold plans to update its information systems; city government lacks the resources to keep up with communications technology development in the private sector; city government opens data; private developers do the work for them. That is the general story behind the Summer of Smart event held in San Francisco this past summer.  Private web and mobile developers came together with employees of city government and others interested in spurring the technological advance of city communications tools.

One of the apps developed at the event, SMART Muni, comes as a direct result of open access to public transit data.  It provides both Muni administrators and Muni riders with real-time data on emergencies or delays in the system by using GPS data feeds sent directly from the vehicles.  The creators of the app, which come from very diverse backgrounds, envision a more fluidly managed system that results in fewer delays and happier customers.

One salient point made by the Chronicle writer was that in the past, citizens’ only method of engagement with the government was through protest, voting, or paying taxes.  Today, they can engage through positive and constructive means, shaping their own civic engagement process.  Happier customers indeed.

- Terra Curtis


Bike Share Apps for Capital BikeShare and Others

I’m going to piggyback on a post from the Greater Greater Washington (GGW) blog, which presents several apps (mobile and web) designed to make the use, operation, or analysis of DC’s Capital Bikeshare (or CaBi) system easier.  All of these apps are enabled by open data and showcase how bikeshare operators can benefit from the work of private developers.  Their own website includes a dashboard, which includes system-wide (default view) and individual station (requires some digging) data. Mobile examples include:

  iFindBikes Web examples include:

One astute comment on the GGW post posits the data, as displayed in an app like SpotCycle, could be used as part of an incentivization scheme whereby users are credited with minutes or money to use on the system if they return their bike to an empty or low-inventory bike station.  This would help automate the redistribution operation, which could cost on the order of 20-30 percent of the total cost of the system.  This means incentive credits offered to users could be quite high and still offer a net gain to the operator.

I’m not sure why they haven’t done this yet, but I could also see this data integrated into DC’s (or other city’s) online trip planner.  Currently, DC’s system offers the choice of using bus, rail, or both when searching for a transit trip – why not include bike share?  Why not include it as a result in the search as an alternative by default?  This would be a less direct way of encouraging the use of the system, a way of raising awareness cheaply by leveraging the established use of the trip planner software.  (Side note: it’s not even included in their listing of “alternate transportation” or the “bike n’ ride” link.  Seems like a no brainer to me.)

It might also be interesting to put practical graphics (like the one below) on physical screens in local businesses near to the bike stations, similar to information displays on bus stops.  Imagine if, leaving your hotel, you were first greeted with a bike rather than a cab stand – a quicker, cheaper, and funner travel mode that you might just be convinced to try.

- Terra Curtis



getaroundMy first day back in San Francisco, I walked by a paper sign stapled to a utility pole advertising a pilot of a new peer-to-peer carsharing service called Getaround.  Since then, I’ve seen no other evidence of the company on the ground, so I decided to look into it a little further. The service, which allows car-owners to rent their cars to others in their neighborhood using an iPhone app, has arranged insurance coverage for the duration of rentals, covering liability, collision, and theft and a deductible of only $500, for which the car-driver (not the owner) would be responsible.  Physical key-swapping is an option, however the company also has a “Carkit” that allows renters to unlock vehicles with their iPhone.

Getaround also pays parking tickets up front, leaving the car-owner free of any headaches and the car driver responsible for reimbursing the company.  (Side note: what if the Getaround app could be integrated with the SFPark data so Getaround users could see parking availability and also detailed parking pricing information to avoid unnecessary fees?)

The company has likened itself to Airbnb, a peer-to-peer apartment rental service, allowing renters to capitalize on unused space when their room is temporarily vacant.  While some have been skeptical of the feasibility of these services, questioning individuals’ openness to sharing their own property with strangers, both companies are having initial successes and hiring.  Airbnb was nominated for a Webby award.

But back to Getaround, in a recent survey of its Twitter followers, the company found only two users who liked the concept but would not rent their own vehicle.  @ryanisnan first expressed concern, but seemed to lighten up to the idea after he was assured that Getaround basically takes all responsibility while the car is in the hands of the renter.  @Getaround responded by reiterating that they screen all drivers before allowing them to rent to ensure the driver has a safe driving record.

Have you tried it?  Would you rent your own?

- Terra Curtis


MedWatcher: Medication Information from your Phone

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nN8vU-UiElw&fs=1&hl=en_US](Note: see the last 5 minutes of this video for information about MedWatcher.) Those prescription drug ads on TV won’t be the only things listing off potential side effects anymore.  Now, there’s an app that’ll bring them straight to your phone!

The University of North Carolina teamed up with Harvard Medical School and the Children’s Hospital in Boston to create MedWatcher, a new iPhone app that lets patients and doctors send and receive information on potential drug side effects and interactions. The idea is to use the power of crowd-sourcing to flag adverse events and expedite the deliverance of information to drug producers and doctors.  This allows app users to be notified quickly when trends indicate warning signs.  It also creates a forum where users can discuss their side effects or concerns with other people using the same prescriptions.

While the interaction side of the app is its strength, it also acts as a simple information dissemination tool.  Users just input a list of their prescriptions and are connected immediately with the latest FDA information about those drugs.

As with all of these crowd-sourcing tools, it’ll be interesting to see how the developers deal with all the noise that gets reported (maybe there was a reason the FDA made it difficult to report adverse events).  While the developers point out that consumer’s unfamiliarity with common interactions could actually help flag important and unforeseen associations, they make no mention of how they’ll sort out the seeds from the chaff.

-Terra Curtis