Citytracking, one of this year’s Knight News Challenge winners, will present digital data about cities that journalists and the public can easily grasp and use, and provide tools to let them distribute their own conclusions. We will build a series of tools to map and visualize data that is truly Internet-native and useful. The project will be:

  • Simple enough that a fairly technical reporter who understands Google Maps and basic HTML can embed something good in their article/report/blog posts.
  • Beautiful enough that an interested amateur citizen will find it useful and interesting.
  • Complex enough to catch the attention of developers nationwide, who we hope will contribute to the project on an ongoing basis.

Along the way, and using an interactive and transparent process, we will release these tools under commercially permissive BSD-licensed open source rules and make them available to cities and journalists that want to use or improve them. Each project will participate in a system of APIs that developers and the public can use to create their own applications. We will provide support for these cities up front and serve as a force for distributing and improving on open source tools that make cities more understandable and accessible.

The project’s first installation is called Dotspotting. We expect to release the site and make the code available for download soon. You can learn more about the project by watching this video:

Knight News Challenge: CityTracking from Knight Foundation on Vimeo.

Who We Are

Stamen is a design and technology studio in San Francisco. We work with numerous organizations and municipalities, continuously engaging in a process of investigation of and delivering state of the art projects that delight as well as inform.

Our approach to new city projects has ranged from official engagements to guerilla investigations. We currently advise the City of San Francisco on its open data program, serving as a first consumer of data and providing direct insight into the cultural and technical process by which civic data can be released to the public. We simultaneously provide a similar valuable outsider service to the City of Oakland, starting with a self-motivated crime data scraping process and ending with acknowledgement and support from the City.

Our commercial design practice places us squarely in the center of the burgeoning field of live data visualization, and our service work in that field for clients ranging from major media brands to cultural institutions offers valuable context to public and government work.

Our Goals

There’s currently a whole chain of elements involved in building digital civic infrastructure for the public, are these are represented by various Stamen projects and those of others. The current hodgepodge of bits — including APIs and official sources, scraped websites, sometimes-reusable data formats and datasets, visualizations, embeddable widgets etc. — is fractured, overly technical and obscure, held in the knowledge base of a relatively small number of people, and requires considerable expertise to harness. That is, unless you’re willing to use generic tools like Google Maps. We want to change this. Visualizing city data shouldn’t be this hard, or this generic.

It’s currently acceptable for a big city like San Francisco to refuse to release any data about the GPS positions of fire and medical calls, despite the mayor’s creation of a citizen-driven clearinghouse for SF-related data. Huge sections of the city bureaucracy are essentially invisible to the citizens who pay for these services. We want to change this. We want to make it unacceptable, technically and politically, for cities in the U.S. to hold onto anything more than their most private data.

Much of the work that’s being done in digital civic infrastructure is being done either for laptops that generally stay put, or on iPhone apps that locked into proprietary formats. We want to change this, too. Web browsers, especially web browsers on phones, know where they are, and the services they provide can be tailored accordingly. Your phone, browser and the city should be connected via permeable, but targeted, surfaces.

Civic Data Ecosystem

An ecosystem is beginning to form around civic data in cities like New York, San Francisco, Chicago and London. It’s getting there, but this activity is mostly happening either in closed systems like the New York Times, or in highly technical places like http://datasf.org, the San Francisco site, which appeal to nerds and technocrats, but leave the broader public scratching their heads as to what all the fuss is about.

What’s missing is a way of dealing with all this data that’s simultaneously visually arresting, accessible to the broad viewing public, and open source. People will care about this if it’s beautiful, well-presented, and intuitively useful. This data, and the experiences around it, need to be designed.

We intend to engage in a more or less continuous series of releases of backend code, mapping algorithms, cleaned-up datasets, APIs, open source contributions, new views on data, and other discreet, but connected, interactions with digital civic infrastructure. It’s not so much about a set of particular benchmarks that lead us toward a particular goal that says “we’re done”; it’s but more about generating a critical mass of material that will extend the state of the art and change people’s expectations for civic data.

We expect to launch a new piece of functionality, design, or infrastructure once a month or so. We’re more or less doing this anyhow as a studio, but we’re doing it for free, when we can spare the time. Currently, client work necessarily takes precedence over this activity; the Knight grant allows us to allocate the same kind of time and effort to this work as we do to our client work and we anticipate a corresponding increase in the quality and quantity of this output.

Challenges Ahead

Things are moving very quickly.

We very much hope this work will continue after the grant; if it is at all successful there should be a thriving ecosystem of consumers, producers, contributors and visualizers that are guided by Stamen’s input but have a dialogue of their own going on outside of our input and direction.

There have been several attempts to turn a thriving open source ecosystem into a money-making operation (Cloudmade off the back of OpenStreetMap, EveryBlock’s acquisition by MSNBC). Generally these tend to be unsuccessful or boring. The model that Drupal uses, where an open source platform is supported by both an open source community and a thriving commercial practice around supporting it, seems like a model worth thinking about.

We would like to see a situation where there is some middle ground between the ubiquity and homogeneity of Google Maps, and the highly refined but proprietary and expensive expertise wielded by the graphics departments of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and MSNBC. There should be a way for journalists, editors, and the public to create highly-customized but easily-produced interactive maps and data visualizations that the public can be delighted with and informed by.

If Everyblock and ManagingNews (two Knight-funded projects we admire) are the Google Maps end of things with their focus on the deployment of APIs and allowing easy embedability of fairly generic display mechanisms, Citytracking will be more like the New York Times’ map-making and visualization department: Deploying delightful, supple and engaging visualizations that cities and journalists can use to tell stories about the places they and their readers and citizens care about.