Sitegeist App Provides Location Insight Using Public Data & Social Media

by   |   December 28, 2012 6:36 pm   |   0 Comments

An example of two of the five panels from the Sitegeist app showing data about Dedham, Mass.

An example of two of the five panels from the Sitegeist app showing data about Dedham, Mass.

Want to know the skinny on your community, or the place you’re visiting?  Sitegeist, a free smartphone app for iPhone and Android, taps into public data sources and puts them into easy-to-read infographics. It’s an illustration of the power of a clear design and the utility of combining varied data sources.

Sitegeist, from the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, takes public data sources, like the U.S. Census, Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Minnesota Population Center along with data from social media sources like Yelp and Foursquare, and organizes them into five categories: People, Housing, Fun, Weather and History. “People,” for instance, includes data on the average age, relative age distribution by gender, children under five, average household income and political contributions by party.

People who use Sitegeist can slide between each category, and up and down within the category to see different data points.

The graphics are mostly numbers and bar charts, but there are some illustrations. The political contributions chart, for example, features a stylized elephant and donkey on a teeter totter.

The app is the third in a series of apps, funded over the last two years by the Knight Foundation, and meant to show people what can be done on a mobile phone with publicly available data. One reason why is the boom in smartphone use worldwide.

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“Mobile is less susceptible to digital divide issues than other technologies,” said Tom Lee, director of Sunlight Labs in Washington, D.C. “If you look at the latest numbers from Nielsen, smartphone penetration is better than broadband penetration, particularly in marginalized communities.”

Lee said that Sitegeist built on what Sunlight learned from its first two apps, Sunlight Health and Upwardly Mobile, a community cost calculator.  He called Sitegeist “The most ambitious and involved” of these, and said it was focused on making a better experience for the people who use it. Lee said he was thinking about Wikihood an app that feeds Wikipedia data about locales, including virtual city tours. But Sunlight wanted to do something that included more infographics.

It also became much more centered on how individuals want to use apps, thanks to design work by consultants at Ideo, who also came up with the clever name.

Sitegeist was customized for Apple’s iOS and Android. Sunlight’s previous apps were built with the idea that a single version would be rendered for different platforms, but that proved more difficult than the foundation had expected.

Sitegeist was built in HTML, Lee said. Then Sunlight added “wrappers” to handle sliding between screens for different types of phones. The wrappers were written in the iOS-specific Objective C, and in Java for Android. Programs to pull data in from some sources were written in Python, and JavaScript was used to pull data from datasets with direct application programming interfaces (APIs).

Civic Engagement

Other examples of apps and services that present public data—and give the public a chance to submit data reports to local authorities.

  • The Metropolitan Transit Authority of New York City unveiled an iPhone app that gives real-time train arrival information for selected subway lines.
  • SeeClickFix is a smartphone app designed to enable citizens to report non-emergency problems in their neighborhood to their local government. It shows locations of problems reported by users.
  • Boston launched an app for citizens to report potholes called Street Bump.
  • The U.S. government apps catalog includes more than 1,000 entries: datasets, charts, maps, calendars and forms.

The app, launched December 13, took most of the year to build. Lee said Sunlight and Ideo started working on Sitegeist in February, starting with Ideo’s usual one-on-one research sessions, asking people about what apps they use on their phones and what open data means to them. Sunlight itself dedicated three people to the app, one as a researcher, one writing code, and one worked on implementing the design. As many as four others spent some of their time working on the app.

While apps take a fair amount of work, “the hardest thing was coming up with something that users would really want to use,” Lee said. Sunlight gets excited about open data, he said, adding that “making it interesting to other people can be tricky because we’re coming at it backwards.”

He said there have been some issues – data pulled from census tracts can lead to confusion, like showing a very small number of children under five in an area where there might seem to be more, like DuPont Circle, near where Sunlight Foundation is based. TUAW’s (The Unofficial Apple Weblog) Erica Sadun complained that the app should have had a single pane of information, rather than five. She wrote, “while I adored the graphics, the GUI isn’t quite as easy to manipulate. Based on scrollable lists of visual data, it’s quite hard to swipe between the five screens on offer.” (Two other users, the writer and editor of this article, did not find these problems using a Droid Incredible 2 and an iPhone 4.)

Many others were trying out the app and Lee thinks the response to Sitegeist shows the developers did something right: in its first week, more than 20,000 people downloaded the app, and Sunlight served up 300,000 pane views.

Whether Sunlight will update Sitegeist is up in the air, since the funding for the project has run its course. But Lee said there are obvious directions to go, like providing photos relevant to the area, making it clearer what the data reflects in a specific place, and including more data points.

Michael Fitzgerald, an editor at, is based in the Boston area. Follow him on Twitter at @riparian.


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