With New Technology, N.Y.C. Paves Way for Open Data
Contest yields new mobile apps
As school choice landscapes have grown ever-more complex, education leaders in Boston, Denver, Philadelphia, and Washington have turned to technology for help, hiring consultants to help design new software for assigning students to schools and launching websites to give families access to information on everything from schools' test scores to their course offerings.
But when it comes to disseminating information, none have gone as far as New York City, which last month made such data "open," inviting software developers to access the information electronically via an "application programming interface," or API, and use it to make their own tools to help users search for and compare the high schools they are considering attending.
The School Choice Design Challenge is believed to be the country's first API-enabled open-data release by a public school district. The challenge resulted in the creation of six apps that let students and families conduct easy side-by-side comparisons of the city's 732 high school programs across a dizzying array of indicators. Parents and students, for instance, can search for high schools by subway line, create lists of schools that can be shared with friends, and use "recommendation engines" that offer suggestions based on students' responses to questions.
The kicker? The apps were all created in eight weeks, at a total cost to the department of education of just $72,000—a far cry from the cumbersome and expensive procurement process traditionally employed by most school districts.
"I think we're the tip of the iceberg," said Steven Hodas, the executive director of Innovate NYC Schools, a project of the New York City department of education's iZone office. "I expect in the next year, we'll see lots of interesting work done by [other] districts with open data."
Many observers hope so. Global business consultant McKinsey & Co. recently projected that making education data more accessible and easier to process could "unlock" a trillion dollars or more in annual economic value worldwide.
There are also potential civic benefits, said Robert Cheetham, the president and CEO of Philadelphia-based Azavea, a company that works with cities to build software based on large municipal data sets.
"I'm a big believer in the notion of government functioning as a platform for exchanging information," Mr. Cheetham said. "I think we'll see better cities if we can do that."
While acknowledging the "very compelling arguments" of those who are wary that open data will lead to violations of privacy, Mr. Cheetham pointed to real-world examples of its civic value, including commuters getting real-time updates on the locations of their buses, or neighborhood watch groups planning patrols based on actual crime statistics. Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia are at the front of the open-data pack, and their first wave of efforts has focused on transit, crime, and real estate information. Education could be next, said Mr. Cheetham.
"It's a fairly significant technical leap, and an even greater political leap," he said.
At the unveiling of the School Choice Design Challenge apps, though, the reviews for the New York Department of Education's efforts were almost all positive. Parastoo Massoumi, for example, is the director of the Middle School Success Center at the Cypress Hills Local Development Corp. in New York City. She described the new apps as a "fabulous" resource for the primarily low-income and immigrant families with whom she works—and a major upgrade over the phonebook-like high school directory that has been her go-to resource for years.
"This is definitely going to improve my life," Ms. Massoumi said.
Vol. 33, Issue 13, Page 13Published in Print: December 4, 2013, as With New Tech., N.Y.C. Paves Way For Open Data