City governance and open-source programming never seemed like a likely marriage. However, emerging initiatives have been working towards it, and have received a boost of popular support through Obama’s call for open government. When NYC’s Mayor Bloomberg launched the Big Apps competition this past June, he invited individuals and groups to program applications that make government data sets accessible to the public — solidifying that technology can contribute to improved quality of life. Applications created in response to Bloomberg’s decisions will join the crowd-sourced initiatives that already exist in New York City, and already explore methods that can offer residents not only information, but a place to gain a sense of community, to exchange ideas and to visualize space digitally.
One of the great joys of New York City is the distinct character of each neighborhood. However, many would argue that economic development has led to the loss of some of neighborhoods’ historical and cultural value. Tom Lowenhaupt, founder of non-profit Connecting.nyc Inc., believes that the underlying problem is that all neighborhoods suffer from “civic media,” or a way to effectively communicate. Connecting.nyc seeks to grant neighborhoods an online gathering place with the creation of a .nyc top-level domain (TLD) exclusively for the use of New York City. While the organization argues that local business would benefit from the unique TLD, Lowenhaupt is mostly concerned with the community engagement possibilities of the domain-name change. He is spearheading an effort called dotNeighborhoods, envisioning separate websites for each neighborhood, where maps, forums, calendars, and civic-oriented applications would be available for perusing and updating by community members. As a method for facilitating dialogue and providing information, the websites will strive to offer the same communal glue as a local coffee shop or park.
Neighborly interaction is only one part of the urban planning formula as civic-minded The Open Planning Project (TOPP) proves with a mix of tech tools and policy advocacy. A venture of Mark Gorton’s, who is also the founder of LimeWire, the organization is reviving the world of urban planning with open-source software. The initiative shows that urban planning using crowd-sourced development, public data libraries, and web forums results in an idea exchange needed to make smart and case-specific decisions about the needs of a community. The TOPP’s wide range of efforts, including OpenGeo, Streetsblog, Streetsfilms and CoActivate, make for a mix of applications that can appeal to city dwellers of varying backgrounds and skills a place to browse, learn, connect and, best of all, contribute to the planning and policies that reign over their neighborhoods.
There are a myriad of factors that affect the look-and-feel of a neighborhood, from land use to transportation options — and making a change in the built environment requires an understanding of these elements. While the Department of City Planning offers census data to the public through their website, there was a lack of public information about factors specific to urban planning needs. So OasisNYC made demographic information, such as land use and environmental characteristics, on open, green spaces in New York City accessible through maps on their website. The mission of the organization is to encourage green-minded individuals to use the information to not only locate these important community amenities, but to engage community members to seek out ways to ensure the success of these spaces.
Harnessing the knowledge and interests of city residents has been the mission of countless community activists and non-profits. So as technology has come to play such a large role in our lives, it is no surprise that tech-savvy, enterprising and civic-minded folk would begin to use these powers for good. And while the reality of thoughtful dialogue between communities and urban planners through avenues born out of open-source programming is perhaps still far off, idealists (and tech geeks) can have reason to hope for empowered communities that engage in the possibilities of better city life.