HELSINKI, Finland — If there's something you'd like to know about Helsinki, someone in the city administration most likely has the answer. For more than a century, this city has funded its own statistics bureaus to keep data on the population, businesses, building permits, and most other things you can think of. Today, that information is stored and freely available on the internet by an appropriately named agency, City of Helsinki Urban Facts.
There's a potential problem, though. Helsinki may be Finland's capital and largest city, with 620,000 people. But it’s only one of more than a dozen municipalities in a metropolitan area of almost 1.5 million. So in terms of urban data, if you're only looking at Helsinki, you’re missing out on more than half of the picture.
Helsinki and three of its neighboring cities are now banding together to solve that problem. Through an entity called Helsinki Region Infoshare, they are bringing together their data so that a fuller picture of the metro area can come into view.
That’s not all. At the same time these datasets are going regional, they're also going "open." Helsinki Region Infoshare publishes all of its data in formats that make it easy for software developers, researchers, journalists and others to analyze, combine or turn into web-based or mobile applications that citizens may find useful. In four years of operation, the project has produced more than 1,000 "machine-readable" data sources such as a map of traffic noise levels, real-time locations of snow plows, and a database of corporate taxes.
A global leader
All of this has put the Helsinki region at the forefront of the open-data movement that is sweeping cities across much of the world. The concept is that all kinds of good things can come from assembling city data, standardizing it and publishing it for free. Last month, Helsinki Region Infoshare was presented with the European Commission's prize for innovation in public administration.
The project is creating transparency in government and a new digital commons. It's also fueling a small industry of third-party application developers who take all this data and turn it into consumer products.
For example, Helsinki's city council has a paperless system called Ahjo for handling its agenda items, minutes and exhibits that accompany council debates. Recently, the datasets underlying Ahjo were opened up. The city built a web-based interface for browsing the documents, but a software developer who doesn’t even live in Helsinki created a smartphone app for it. Now anyone who wants to keep up with just about any decision Helsinki's leaders have before them can do so easily.
Another example is a product called BlindSquare, a smartphone app that helps blind people navigate the city. An app developer took the Helsinki region’s data on public transport and services, and mashed it up with location data from the social networking app Foursquare as well as mapping tools and the GPS and artificial voice capabilities of new smartphones. The product now works in dozens of countries and languages and sells for about €17 ($24 U.S.)
"I'm amazed things have been moving so fast,” says Asta Manninen, who as the director of City of Helsinki Urban Facts also coordinates the regional data effort. "If you think about BlindSquare, all we had to do was to open the data, and the developer took care of the rest."
A lean organization
The story of Helsinki Region Infoshare goes back to 2009. As Manninen tells it, the lord mayor of Helsinki came to her office with a question. The various municipalities in metro Helsinki together form a functional urban region, she said. Is it possible to get the same high quality data on the entire region that exists for the city of Helsinki?
Manninen wrote a document that envisioned how the regional system should work. Each city is still responsible for gathering, maintaining, and publishing their own statistical data. The regional body works as a clearinghouse that confirms the data and offers training, support, and technical knowledge. Basically, it functions as a directory to the cities and software developers, telling them where and how to find the data they’re looking for.
"We didn't set up a new organization, a new bureaucracy, nothing," says Manninen.
Manninen's document got the green light at a meeting of the region's mayors. The following year, the councils of three surrounding cities — Espoo, Vantaa and Kauniainen — decided to go along with the project and contribute funds to it. The beta version of the Helsinki Region Infoshare website was launched in March 2011.
The regional group’s yearly budget is €60,000 ($83,000 U.S). The cost is split among the cities on a per-capita basis. The other ten municipalities of the region opted out of the system; Manninen suspects the smaller cities were wary of joining a new project whose value they weren’t sure of.
But other groups did see the value, almost immediately. The regional effort received funding from two outside organizations, Sitra and Forum Virium Helsinki. The publicly funded Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund, got involved because they believed the model could be replicated by large and small cities all over the country. Forum Virium Helsinki is a public-private partnership that helps develop new digital services in cooperation with the city. They provided Helsinki Region Infoshare with a project manager and a programmer for the first couple of years.
The cooperation is remarkable in a region where the metropolitan cities historically have had a hard time working together. "Statistics bureaus must be the exception," Manninen says, "because we've always managed to work together."
From the start, the project was infused not only with regional thinking but openness. Helsinki Region Infoshare has studied the open-data initiatives of New York City, Chicago, London and Australia. Manninen and her colleagues have been spreading the gospel of open data to other parts of Helsinki's administration, the other cities of the region, and the rest of Finland.
Before datasets are made accessible to the public, they have to be gone over with a fine-tooth comb. Often, databases from different agencies need to be merged. That helps break down silos in the administration, although the data remain the responsibility of whatever organization has already been gathering it.
"Now I have instant access to every other bureau's data," Manninen says. "Whereas before this, I had to get a permission every time."
Fund the idea, not the app
Engaging the software developer community is an important part of the Helsinki model. For example, Forum Virium organizes monthly "Helsinki Loves Developers" meet-ups. The events give developers a place to network with each other and city officials and to hear about projects people are working on.
Helsinki also runs competitions for developers who create apps with public-sector data. That's nothing new — BlindSquare won the Apps4Finland and European OpenCities app challenges in 2012. But this year, they’re trying a new approach to the app challenge concept, funded by the European Commission’s prize money and Sitra.
It’s called Datademo. Instead of looking for polished but perhaps random apps to heap fame and prize money on, Datademo is trying to get developers to aim their creative energies toward general goals city leaders think are important. The current competition specifies that apps have to use open data from the Helsinki region or from Finland to make it easier for citizens to find information and participate in democracy. The competition also gives developers seed funding upfront.
Datademo received more than 40 applications in its first round. Of those, the eight best suggestions were given three months and €2,000 ($2,770 U.S) to implement their ideas. The same process will be repeated two times, resulting in dozens of new app ideas that will get a total of €48,000 ($66,000 U.S.) in development subsidies. Keeping with the spirit of transparency, the voting and judging process is open to all who submit an idea for each round.
Manninen says this model is more focused and intentional than you'll find in many apps competitions. But it’s also more flexible than you’ll find in traditional public contracting processes, where the government outlines the product it wants and asks companies to produce exactly that. “With Datademo, we know what we want,” Manninen says, "but there are many doors open, so we don’t know what might come up."
One of the participants who cleared the first round of Datademo is Juuso Parkkinen. Together with his colleagues, he is building a set of software tools for a statistical analysis program called “R.” Parkkinen hopes that the tools will make it easier for researchers, journalists and citizen activists to crunch numbers about Helsinki and the surrounding region. In many ways, their project is a good example of what is happening around open data. All the code they contribute has been built on a widely used platform and is freely available.
Parkkinen himself is a doctoral student in the Statistical Machine Learning and Bioinformatics Group at the Aalto University, which explains why he's familiar with statistical analysis software. He self-identifies as a researcher, not a software developer, and has been working on the project mostly in his free time.
The main reason his group chose to build upon data from Helsinki Region Infoshare is that the data is open and free. Were the data in non-standard form — or even worse, had a price tag attached to it — it's more than likely that Parkkinen and his colleagues would have spent their energies elsewhere.
Now that the statistical analysis tools are beginning to take shape, Parkkinen has one more wish.
"I'm hoping we could get access to similar data from abroad," he says, “and not just Helsinki."
This post originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site.