PediaCities: Making Smarter Communities through Civic Tech

PediaCities is super proud of its recent civic tech collaboration with the New York City Department of Education’s iZone, in which we helped the iZone tackle the challenge of high school choice.  We were also very proud to have been chosen as one of the civic tech leaders featured in a recent panel discussion at the Talking Transition Tent.

Talking Transition PediaCities Presentation_Photo by n0n3ck

Photo by n0n3ck

Yesterday, our product manager Nathan gave a short presentation of our work with the Department of Education’s iZone as part of the Talking Transition event, “21st Century City: The Social Impact of Data & Technology.” This panel discussion focused on the future of civic tech innovation in New York City and featured talks from government and technology leaders and presentations of apps and tools that, just like our recent collaboration with the iZone, demonstrate how civic data can help create not just “smart cities,” but also smart communities around the country.

Our work with the iZone was directed at helping to “smarten” the complicated process of high school choice that confronts around 80,000 New York City eighth graders every fall. Each of these students must choose which of the city’s many hundreds of high schools he or she wants to apply to – a process that is often overwhelming, as news media outlets have reported. Until now, students and parents trying to make this choice have had to rely primarily on the information published in the Department of Education’s annual High School Handbook. While this book makes the information accessible, it definitely has its limitations (for one, it’s over 500 pages long and is not searchable!).

The iZone had a great idea to to make this process better and easier for parents and students:  why not open up the data behind the book so that software developers could design apps and websites that help students and parents navigate this complex decision?

The Department of Education hired PediaCities to get their High School Handbook data ready for developers. We cleaned this data and worked with the Department to curate other relevant datasets that could provide context to the high school choice process. This data was then made available through the Department of Education’s first public API.

Making the API

Six other companies were chosen to participate in the iZone Design Challenge and were given a small stipend to develop new apps and websites using the cleaned, curated, and publicly available API data. This process was informed by a Design Brief from the Public Policy Lab, as well as user feedback sessions with students. The companies created some really great, innovative apps with the data we prepared, all of which you can check out at  (While you’re there, you can also take a look at the data these developers used to create their apps.)

Now here’s the important part: most of this data (except the newly released High School handbook data and some of the geographic boundaries that we created in-house at PediaCities) is also available directly through the city’s open data portal. But by providing a more focused data platform for this project the Department of Education helped developers focus in on the very specific, pressing issue of high school choice.  In more general terms, presenting API access to curated data on well-articulated, specific issues can help encourage directed, timely, and useful civic innovation.

One other illuminating thing happened during this Design Challenge. Below is a screenshot of the High School Handbook entry for the Academy for Careers in Television and Film in Queens. The problem, circled in red, is that the school has recently moved and the subway information provided in the data is outdated.  Someone from the Academy for Careers in Television and Film, who had heard about the new apps for school choice and had looked up her school, discovered the incorrect subway information. She contacted the app developer, who notified the Department of Education, who is now updating the subway information for this school. Once the change is made all of the apps that use this data will automatically be updated. This kind of feedback loop is only enabled by the trifecta of open data, API access, and community involvement — and is central to maintaining good civic data sets!

Feedback Loop

So here’s the takeaway: smart communities need data, but simply opening it up is often not enough to achieve meaningful results. Smart communities need clean, accessible, high quality data that address their real needs. Validation of the data from local experts is needed at every step. Finally, smart communities must be part of continuous data feedback loops, as they are producers and consumers of this data.

Here at PediaCities we are in the business of building solutions for smarter communities — just look at all the curated, normalized data available for free on our data wrangler!  But we also need input from you and your community to find out what we can build on top of that data to directly address your needs.  So we invite you to contact us and tell us all about what civic data can do for you!

One final note: in the spirit of civic participation and feedback loops, we also encourage you to go check out the Talking Transition Tent.  The tent is up and running through this Saturday, November 23. We’re happy to have been a part of this experiment in transparent, open governance during this local government transition, and we think the tent is totally worth learning about – and visiting – if you haven’t already.  And if you’re curious about the Talking Transition event we were part of,  “21st Century City: The Social Impact of Data & Technology,” take a look at #TalkingTransition, #innovatenyc, and #cfaNYC on Twitter.

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