Barcelona APPlies itself to improve city services

They say that Barcelona is one of the world’s most cutting-edge cities in terms of innovation. The city’s 22@ district, always teeming with ideas from the best and the brightest, seems to corroborate this claim. However, many of these improvements have little to do with everyday life, and therefore go unnoticed by the public. But… can everyday problems be solved through innovation?

According to the Barcelona City Council, the answer is yes, for example through open data mobile applications. The city has announced a local contest, Apps4bcn, that will give entrepreneurs and freelance developers the chance to help satisfy the daily needs of smart cities. Sponsored by Vodafone and Toshiba, Apps4bcn will be complemented by the city’s participation in the Open Cities App Challenge, a Europe-wide competition in which Barcelona will face off against Helsinki, Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, London and Bologna to see which city can develop the best application to make urban space more efficient and transparent.

Barcelona already offers some examples of free open data applications for the general public. Some of these promising apps received awards at the 2011 Mobile Forum Conference. One award winner was Bústia Ciutadana, a virtual mailbox where iPhone and Android users can report damage to public spaces (even photographically) and receive assurance from the city that it will be fixed “in five days, on average”, according to the Barcelona Municipal Institute of Computer Science (IMI). This application, like the Bicing and Trànsit apps, has already been downloaded at least 78,713 times.

But it’s time to stop and take stock of the situation, says ESADE Associated Professor Esteve Almirall, creator and coordinator of the Open Cities App Challenge: “Each city has come out with its own app for reporting problems. In total, there must be about 15 different apps of this sort throughout Europe, all based on the same idea. It’s become very common to reinvent the wheel.” A European competition, he said, makes more sense than ever. “It’s about creating a European apps market that does not exist today, to share knowledge and increase visibility,” said Prof. Almirall. But there’s more to it than that Almirall, an expert in innovation, says it is also a market-related issue: “Sometimes local apps don’t have enough market to grow. For example, there’s a Spanish app that is used in Helsinki to report traffic issues. This proves that it’s possible to create larger markets.”

The idea, according to the organisers and participants in Open Cities App Challenge, is not to create rivalry between countries. “This project gives us the opportunity to learn from other cities. And it allows developers to think about their applications globally, beyond the information limits of their own city,” said Ivonne Jansen-Dings, the head of open data at Waag Society, which joined forces with the economic department of the city of Amsterdam and a group called Hack the Government to launch this initiative in 2011.

Developers hoping to launch their apps in Amsterdam and the other six participating cities have until 17th May to submit an application with Apps4bcn; with the candidate’s permission, applications will automatically be forwarded to the European competition. Alternatively, candidates may apply to the Open Cities App Challenge directly anytime before 30th June. At that time, ten finalists will be selected to present their projects to a panel of judges at the Smart Cities Expo, which will be held in Barcelona in November.

This post is a translation of an article by Andrea Pelayo published on the 13th of March 2012 on “El Mundo” in its supplement “Innovadores”.

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