City Hall Hustle: Austin Interacts
It was that other mayor who jumped off bridges
Among those noticing has been the city of Austin, which has looked to leverage the tech influx as it addresses two major Web issues of its own, one long-simmering, the other newly launched: the redesign of the city website and the effort to attract Google to Austin to build an ultra-high-speed Web network.
The two-phase site redesign effort, on which we've reported before (see "The Genius of the Crowd ... Source," June 5, 2009), is now a fair way along. The city has chosen a contractor – SteelSMBology – for Phase 1, to analyze the current site; draft a new, more intuitive architecture; recommend a new content-management system; and more. Phase 2, scheduled to occur sometime midyear, will take on the actual construction of the site, but Steel is still gathering input and feedback on the features users would like to see. To that end, the company co-hosted a meet-up Sunday with the city and OpenAustin (www.openaustin.org), an ad hoc association of local programmers that has inked an agreement with the city to provide crowdsourced feedback and website development assistance.
Coming smack-dab in the middle of SXSW Interactive, the meet-and-greet was lightly attended (at least for the first half the Hustle saw). Even so, it was possible to see the potential for great applications in a revamped city website. In attendance was Juan Sequeda, one of the founders of Semantic Web Austin (www.semanticwebaustin.org), a local group currently incorporating as a nonprofit. One of the guiding principals of Web 3.0 thought, the "semantic" in "semantic Web" roughly refers to the ability of programs to crunch, mash, and analyze data themselves. To Sequeda, the data the city possesses has the potential for countless interesting and informative new applications: plotting 911 calls and crimes by neighborhood or pulling up the records of individual cab drivers, as coders have actually been able to do with data from the city of New York.
"Sometimes cities don't even know what kind of data they have," says Sequeda. What he wants the city to consider in the redesign is recording and publishing data in one standardized format – "linked data," in the vocabulary of the Web standards-setting World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) – where it can be easily mined, instead of recording it across a disparate mix of formats such as PDF, HTML, and so on. To show the value, Sequeda hopes to host a "code-a-thon" by the summer, to "get developers together over the weekend" to build apps out of sets of city data. That way, they can come back and say, "With 10 data sets, look at all these cool apps." Imagine what they could do with more.
The Google bid is decidedly more out of the city's hands. Under the megafirm's "Google Fiber for Communities" initiative, cities are competing as locations for the search giant to build an ultrafast, 1-gigabit-per-second fiber optic network (www.fiber.google.com/about). We're far from alone in the competition: A cursory glance (courtesy of Google News, naturally) reveals dozens of other cities vying for Google Fiber.
In contrast to the outlandish bids elsewhere (skydiving mayors, offers to rename the town, etc.), Chip Rosenthal, chair of the Community Technology and Telecommunications Commission, says we need to get Google "to understand how they can come to Austin and become successful with this network," how Austin's breadth of tech talent can facilitate building it "quickly and cheaply." The deadline to submit requests and support is March 26.
As interesting as the bids are the reasons behind Google's offer in the first place. "Part of it is the tech," says Rosenthal – potential applications for gigabit Internet include virtual medical visits and digital entertainment distribution, which Austin would do well to trumpet. "But they also want to test the policy," Rosenthal adds. Google has led a push for an "open access," net-neutral project, where different providers could compete over its fiber. The whole effort really seems like a way to shame American ISPs into stepping up their games, as U.S. Web speeds lag well behind Asia and Europe.
Perhaps the most lamentable policy aspect is that in this economy – even with a Democratic D.C. administration – once again, it's the private sector leading the public way.
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