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People power apps

Apps like eCatch create real time information networks between fishermen and other natural resource users and managers.

Information is power, and government openness with the information it collects and stores is one way to distribute power to the people. Work in this “open data” movement can give people and their ubiquitous mobile devices access to all the useful information that local, state and national agencies collect to manage public resources like transit lines or parks or even fish.

Ecotrust’s work is just beginning to blossom in this space.  We’re increasingly nurturing a real-time conversation between people, and a constant exchange of information bits, even if a user is, say, pitching in 12-foot seas.

In 2011, our software team helped The Nature Conservancy build an iPad app for their eCatch platform as part of their groundfish recovery project in Morro Bay. Taking advantage of the iPad’s touch interface and built-in GPS, the app allows fishermen to quickly collect information on their catch and submit it when they are near shore. This allows for new types of group planning where, for example, one fisherman can alert colleagues about the presence of high numbers of at-risk species under strict management, so the other fishermen can better avoid mistakenly catching that species.

Apps like eCatch create real time information networks between fishermen and other natural resource users and managers.
Apps like eCatch create real time information networks between fishermen and other natural resource users and managers.

Another challenge is taking raw public data and turning it into something useful. Recently I participated in a new apps contest hosted by Trimet, the Portland-area transit agency, which pioneered the practice of opening its data to anyone who wanted to use it. The app I chose to build, called SeatMate, uses exciting new technologies like node.js, socket.io, redis and knockout.js to build instant online communities out of mobile users who are on the same bus line. The app took second place in the contest; the winners built a travel application that will show visitors how to get to popular destinations around the city using public transport.

Increasing community engagement is also the goal of CitySync, a project sponsored by the City of Portland to build a platform for sharing information between government, individuals and businesses. By facilitating communication on a neighborhood level, the city hopes to empower citizens and develop highly networked communities and robust local economies — which will contribute to overall city resilience. The project is currently hosting a CitySync Challenge for developing data and apps on the CitySync platform.

All this work opens up a world of possibilities for democratizing government and public processes, such as managing natural resources. Open government and the open data movement are about increasing transparency and equity in public processes; the movement could transform the way decisions are made and business is done in the public space.