The SimpliCity initiative, which won a Technology Award at the recent Code for America Summit 2015 in Oakland, California, provides the residents of Asheville, North Carolina with easy access to comprehensive data on their town.

SimpliCity enables residents to find out all about their town

Among the many aspects of the ‘smart city’, one of the key issues is how to set up better information flows between citizens and the local authorities. This goal leads in multiple directions – not just the obvious objective of improving the effectiveness of government and the way day-to-day problems are managed, but in addition encouraging citizen engagement and thereby boosting the democratic spirit. Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf, whom L’Atelier interviewed in July about the participatory government initiatives her local authority has taken, told the gathering: ‟We need to ensure our citizens start to like democracy again. We need their participation if government is to work. I believe that opening up data can help to increase transparency, shed light on what the government is doing, so that citizens understand where their tax dollars are going, so they can see that it’s useful to participate in the democratic process.” Now an original initiative in this field has come out of the small municipality of Asheville, North Carolina. A few months ago City Hall set up the SimpliCity platform, which is designed to give residents easy access to any and every sort of data on their town.

A simple intuitive interface

Opening up data for the use of the local citizenry is by no means a new phenomenon, but the initiative the town has taken is innovative in terms of format, claims Asheville’s Chief Information Officer, Jonathan Feldman, who was at the Code for America Summit 2015 to present the project. ‟Most innovations in local government are based on a map and are often complex and difficult to handle,” he pointed out, explaining: ‟SimpliCity on the other hand has been designed to be simple and intuitive, with a search bar where residents enter keywords and get back suggestions, exactly as they would with Google.” The service works on the basis of location. You enter a geographical area – the name of a district, a local neighbourhood, an exact postal address, or even the name of the owner of a piece of real estate. You can then access all the data entered on that area: crime statistics, garbage collection schedules, local taxes, planning applications, etc. Users can also obtain the postal addresses of residents and real estate owners in a given geographical zone.

Streamlining feedback to the authorities

Of course information should not only be flowing one-way from the city authorities to residents.  Accordingly, SimpliCity provides functionality that enables citizens to send feedback in the opposite direction, pointing out where and why they are unhappy with the local authorities, making requests and suggesting improvements. As this project is fully open source, the technology can easily be used by other interested city authorities. ‟I think municipal authorities are now realising that technology not only helps them to improve their internal operations but also has considerable benefits for citizens,” argued Jonathan Feldman. Asheville received a Technology Award at the Code for America Summit for its innovative citizen information platform, which is basically all about presenting town data in an easily accessible and intelligible manner, but in fact the entire project emanates from the Open Data Policy in force in the United States, where there is today no shortage of such innovations in the way local government is run.  In May L’Atelier reported on the San Francisco-based startup NextRequest, which is currently helping the US administration to digitise its data with a view to communicating more easily with ordinary citizens.

By Guillaume Renouard