This weekend Open Data Ottawa and their partners at the City of Ottawa will be hosting Learn Hack YOW at City Hall. It’s your chance to come mess around with some of the city’s data sets, brainstorm ideas for what to do with data, and learn some practical skills that will help you engage with the exciting new world of open data. You don’t need any technical skills – in fact, the organizers tell me they are hoping that a full range of academics, activists, artists and others will show up. Part of the day’s program will feature Luke Closs, the founder of Recollect in Vancouver, an app that connects you with your municipality’s garbage schedule. He’ll be speaking about entrepreneurship and open data. I sent Luke some questions to find out more about Recollect and how he turned open data into a business model.
Apt613: How did you come to develop Recollect?
Luke Closs: 3+ years ago the City of Vancouver became the first city in Canada with an open data policy. I was interested in this, and ended up developing the precursor to Recollect called VanTrash for Vancouver residents. We let it run and started to receive really warm feedback from residents. We clearly had created a service that citizens really valued. We decided to figure out how to build a company around this product.
Since then, we’ve built Recollect into a software service sold to municipal governments and private waste haulers. It helps those organizations communicate with residents around waste and recycling collections. We’ve got customers all over North America and all signs point to a huge level of satisfaction with our product and service.
Apt613: What type of data is Recollect based on?
LC: Recollect uses both geo-special data and schedule data. We load the raw datasets from municipalities into our database and make the data available to residents via our website and mobile apps.
Apt613: What are you hoping that you can do for local governments?
LC: A few things.
1) We hope to provide a really awesome level of service to residents. Most municipal websites are pretty horrible (this is changing, which is a great sign) – and waste is typically in the top 3 reasons residents come to a city’s website. We hope to make the experience of looking up your schedule crazy simple and easy. And we also want to push the data from the city to residents when they need it. Our waste collection reminders are a great example of embedding city data into a residents life when they most need it.
2) Save governments money. By helping residents self serve, and by reminding them of waste collection events, we feel we can reduce the number of help desk calls the city gets. This can save lots of money. In addition, the people answering the calls use Recollect too, which means they can help residents faster – reducing the time spent on the phone.
3) Provide new ways to communicate with residents. In the past, cities communicate with residents around waste typically once a year, when they mail out the collection calendar. With Recollect, city administrators now have essentially a real-time communications channel with residents, where they can communicate year-round.
And finally, 4) We hope to inspire local governments to seek out and support other civic apps like Recollect, and inspire civic hackers to create future products. We want to help cities transition away from the IT Cartel that delivers crappy experiences and charges way too much money.
Apt613: What would be your advice to other aspiring open data driven entrepreneurs?
LC: I’ll be covering this during my talk on Saturday at the hackathon. A few thoughts, though. First, build small things that make life easier for people. When you feel like you’ve got something that residents love, you can start to figure out if you can make it into a business. This path will be super slow and long, but it can be very rewarding. Recollect started out as a small simple idea, and over time we’ve built it into a real product that provides real value to municipalities. It was lots of work and constant learning and iteration along the way.
For more information on this weekend’s hackathon, check out the Open Data blog. It says this event is full, but I have it on good authority that you should ignore that and just go anyway. They won’t be turning people away.