Sunday, August 25, 2013

AirBnB for farmers and eaters

This is a post that's been sitting around in my draft box for about a year. It's not doing any good there, so I'm publishing it as is. Does anyone know if a thing like I describe exists?

- Mjumbe

Here's an idea: AirBnB for CSA farmers (and patrons).  For short, let's give it a Web2.0 name like "" (someone come up with a better name).

Someone should capitalize on this.  Think about it, everyone needs to eat!

I haven't been a host on AirBnB for long [I'm not any longer, but was for about a year], but here are some of the things that I enjoy about the system, from both host and guest perspectives (we'll call the analogs on farmers and eaters):
  • Handle the money - Make sure that it is as painless as possible to get money from the eater to the farmer.  Farmers should be able to focus on farming and eaters should be able to focus on eating.  I don't think farmers get into farming because they like dealing with credit card companies.
  • Don't be greedy - Charge only a small surcharge for farmers.  They're doing the work and it's important that they feel they're getting most of the benefit.
  • Allow bidirectional reviews - In a peer-to-peer network, it's important that not only the eater has a good experience with the farmer, but also vice versa.  Make sure your farmers feel like they're protected against entering into relationships with bad eaters.
  • Focus on the customer service - The success of the site will depend on the how well it facilitates interaction between eaters and farmers.  It should remove as many barriers as possible between an eater finding, getting information about, and contacting a farmer.
And, some things that I wish AirBnB had that should (ideally):
  • Let the farmers access their data ... ALL OF IT -- Farmers should have access to simple analytical views on all of their sales data, and be able to get a dump of it all if they want to do their own analysis.
I don't know enough about CSAs (yet) to come up with a complete list of requirements, but here's a start:
  • Farmers should be able to create a profile for their farm where they can post...
    •  pictures
    • a schedule
    • the food they grow/harvest
    • the buy-in they're asking (price)
    • details about how they operate (again, I don't know much, but there's some info under "Variations" at
  • Eaters should be able to find farms that are located near them, or that drop off near them
  • Eaters should be able to leave reviews and ratings of farmers (but only farmers they've received food from), and farmers should be able to rate eaters (but only those that have received their food)
  • Eaters should be able to select (shop for) food from a given farm through the site
Who is the target market:
  • People new to CSAs.  For them, there should be plenty of informational material on how it all works.
  • People who have used CSAs, but are moving to a different area or city.  These people will probably want to keep using CSAs, and need to find one to patronize.
I don't know if one could tell beforehand which of those two groups would be the primary market for the site.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Working towards open legislative data

(I also posted this over on the OpenPlans blog)

A few weeks back, I sent out a solicitation to a bunch of city clerks and other people connected to City Council bodies around the country that use Granicus's legislative management software, Legistar. I was requesting signatures on a publically available letter as a statement of the importance of opening the legislation data that Granicus collects through Legistar. This type of data has been a persistent interest of mine ever since I helped start Councilmatic a couple years ago.

The Method

To find the cities that use the software I searched Google for all sites on the domain (i.e., with the search query ""). Then I wrote a little scraper to step through the pages of that search and collect the subdomains. I took the results and started collecting contact information for the City Council contacts in those cities (see those results here — it's a far-from-complete list). I then contacted the people in that list with a little bit of background about myself, my projects, and the letter's purpose:

The letter is meant to let Granicus know that their clients think that it is important to have their data open and available to the public, specifically through an API. The letter is directed at Granicus because, as the letter states, they are in a unique position to open this data for a number of bodies all over the country at one time. The developers at Granicus are in favor of this type of action, but we believe that hearing from their clients that this is important would help them to prioritize it further.

...Many opportunities for business enterprise, journalistic storytelling, public advocacy, and citizen experimentation are lost when there is no access to quality data sources.

For demonstration of the latter point, see amazing work done by the likes of Open City folks in Chicago, or AxisPhilly in Philadelphia, or work coming out of the Code for America fellowship. There are many more examples of applications built with open data (here's a list of seven more apps covered by Mashable), but the data has to be out there in a way for developers and tinkerers to work with first.

An additional, unstated purpose was just to raise awareness about the value of opening this data, particularly with so many different parties interested in local legislative data recently.

The Response

I received responses from 5 of the people on the list, two from cities that agreed to sign. Both of the cities with favorable responses were from people that I had some prior connection to, at least through some common acquaintance, underscoring the importance of personal relationships and trust when making changes. I think that it is reasonable to expect a low return rate for any cold-call communication. The person on the receiving end is even less likely to response, I think, when they don't understand the purpose of the solicitation. We're still far from a point where an open data vocabulary is common in government. For example, one of the contacts that got in touch with had this response:

Please note that any documents pertaining to the [city represented] that would be available through Granicus/Legistar are already available to any member of the public through our website. I am fairly confident that is true of any city that utilizes their services. Have a good day and a wonderful new year.

The benefits of making data open and available in raw formats is something that I have found difficult to communicate outside of one-on-one conversations. It is definitely a big step to make data available in a human readable format, but computers aren't good at getting information in the same ways that humans are. Enabling people to build new things, tell new stories, and otherwise make the data useful to more people in more ways requires access to the data in a more computationally malleable form.

What's most frustrating is that, often, data is already sitting in a repository somewhere ripe for developers to use. This is evidenced by the fact that many documents, such as every Legistar legislation record, are generated from raw data. That data is simply inaccessible in its raw form. Access to the data is mediated by the format that the document is rendered into. Scraping is an option in this case, but it is an overly complicated, inherently fragile solution, and there are better solutions to be had.

Data openness initiatives like these have a higher chance of success when there are local supporters who understand the issue and can coach city contacts through what it all means. This is the approach that the OpenCity group is taking in Chicago, with some success. If I did this over, I would start with cities that have a local Code for America brigade to help with the outreach.