Smart Ideas for an Intelligent City

Published on 2012-06-12 by in News, Open Data, Saint John, T4G

Kurt Peacock’s latest article appeared in today’s Telegraph-Journal and it features some great points on Open Data:

Saint John is now officially an intelligent community, at least according to the latest world competition organized by the New York-based Intelligent Community Forum. I can think of no better way to celebrate than to order in some pizza and hold a civic hack-a-thon.

I state this because I’ve actually attended one of these events before. Bringing together public policy researchers with computer programmers, a civic hack-a-thon is meant to reinvent government – by harnessing the data processing speed of computer technology, and creating open collaboration between citizens and civil servants. Civic hack-a-thons have been a vital component of the growing open government movement across North America, and have been welcomed by mayors from New York to San Francisco.

The hack-a-thon I attended was actually held in Fredericton a few months ago, and was organized by T4G, the innovative tech firm with a talented New Brunswick workforce. I was invited to the event by Shawn Peterson, the T4G tech wizard who revolutionized the way New Brunswickers looked at their property tax assessments, through the construction of his very userfriendly Propertize website.

I asked Peterson (via Twitter – we live in a digital age) how the city should translate intelligent community status into something tangible for city taxpayers. His response, in 140 characters or less? Order the pizza, and start the Saint John hack-a-thon now.

“I think the best thing we can do is show government how we can save money and provide good services without them needing to do it,” noted Peterson. In another tweet, the Propertize founder emphasized how easy access to government data was critical to citizen-led innovation: “The best way to encourage them is to start opening up data. Besides some obviously confidential or personal data, most could go live anytime!” Given the enthusiasm of local hackers like Peterson, Saint John is certainly ready to hold its own open-data pizza party. But before it does this, city hall should open up its mountain of administrative data from city agencies and commissions. The data that could be made available for examination is potentially endless: hourly attendance at city rinks or the Canada Games Aquatic Centre, the number of passengers on different bus routes, the amount of parking violations issued or the number and location of 911 emergency calls could all be looked at.

Under open government, the more data points made available, the more likely that public policy could be improved. A bunch of kids manipulating spreadsheets and making Google maps can in turn translate into the discovery of real efficiencies for taxpayers.

Of course, city hall undertakes some initiatives right now (in policing, and energy management) that show it’s ripe to host a hack-a-thon. Now that we’re branded as intelligent, let’s build on this momentum, and extend it to every cost driver. Some have talked about developing a more robust fleet management policy, policed by common council. Why not simply attach GPS locators on all city vehicles, so city taxpayers can click on a website, and find out where the cars are parked any hour of the day or night?

For more “smart city” ideas, I turned to Craig Allen, one of the architects of the online #livelifeuptown movement. His advice? Continue the online conversation, something that Allen suggests has made the city the “social media capital of the Maritimes.” Naturally, Allen wants to see city hall embrace social media much more than it does now:

“I’d love to see city hall dive even further into two-way communication aspects of the medium by encouraging all employees to use social media to listen & collaborate with citizens I’d love to see a steady flow of information out of city departments such as tourism, arts and recreation.” Allen also argued for more city focus on the app economy, including some QR code content on city landmarks. His most far-out idea?

A Saint John foghorn app for smartphones.

“How fun would it be to offer that free download to visitors on a foggy day?” asked Allen.”Can someone please build this? Perhaps we should have a contest.” If this ever gets built, I’d upgrade my cellphone to get it. Stuck in uptown fog? There’s an app for that.

Kurt Peacock is a columnist for the Telegraph-Journal. He can be reached on Twitter @kurtpeacock or by email at

2 Comments  comments 
  • frank

    Stop the discussion and do it already. Cities hold so much valuable information which never sees the light of day. The city should put up a website, and let developers request data and API’s. Give me all the data and let me make the apps that my users want and need.

  • Sarah Ingalls

    I’ve been waiting days for a reply to email/facebook/twitter from the city. Thankfully the Smart city status doesn’t refer to city staff.