Building a better Helsinki

When the European Parliament compared the Smart City initiatives of 468 European cities, Helsinki was ranked as one of the top six. Propelled by agile city development policies, Helsinki is planning to stay at the cutting edge in the future.

Jussi Pajunen, the Mayor of Helsinki, is presenting his favourite app in the lobby of Helsinki City Hall.

“I get all decision-making related information straight to my mobile phone, with all the attachments,” Pajunen marvels.

Indeed, in just a few clicks, his Lumia smartphone screen displays the latest council bills, the auditor’s statement, the new traffic plans and committee verdicts.

 Jussi Pajunen, the Mayor of Helsinki

Ahjo Explorer is the favorite app of Jussi Pajunen, the Mayor of Helsinki. It shows the latest council bills and committee verdicts in the screen of a mobile phone.

Only recently, while shopping on a Saturday, he got a call from a journalist asking him to comment on a new council bill. The Mayor was not yet even aware of what the bill entailed.

“I could research and comment on the issue immediately, in the middle of my grocery shopping,” Mayor Pajunen says.

This story has been heard several times. It has been told at city seminars, and the Ahjo Explorer app has been demonstrated to Pajunen’s colleagues around the world.

The Mayor’s favourite app probably wouldn’t exist if Forum Virium Helsinki hadn’t suggested to Markku Raitio, City of Helsinki’s IT Manager, that Helsinki participate in a code fellowship program.

These days, cities’ IT departments mainly function as procurement organisations. In a pilot initiated by Forum Virium Helsinki, six European cities employed open data professionals to work as IT procurement experts and drive selected coding projects. Juha Yrjölä, who worked as a Code fellow for Helsinki city, was quick to build an open interface for the council’s decision making system.

User-centric digital city services

Forum Virium Helsinki’s development projects drive the creation of digital city services. From the very start, ideas under development are tested as part of users’ everyday lives. Another goal is to create new business opportunities for companies.

The Smart City Innovation unit for Helsinki City was founded in 2006. When the CEO of Forum Virium Helsinki, Jarmo Eskelinen, is asked what has been its most important achievement to date, he doesn’t hesitate.

“It’s definitely our leap into the world of open data in 2009. Back then it was still only raved about by a small group of geeks, but we believed that we should grab hold of the concept,” Eskelinen states.

Forum Virium Helsinki teamed up with data enthusiasts to launch the Apps4Finland competition for utilising open data sources. This cooperation with open data proponents has since given birth to the idea about an open city.

“The city needs to be an enabler. The best way to enable is to open up processes, data and data systems as well as the city’s operating models,” Eskelinen says.

The most significant pioneer work for opening up public data has been done by the Helsinki Region Infoshare service, involving municipalities in the Helsinki Metropolitan area. The numbers speak for themselves: the service already covers over 1000 open data sets.

Towards open interfaces

City of Helsinki’s own Helsinki Development Portal (dev.hel.fi) is leading by example in opening up interfaces.

The most popular open data sets are built into interfaces, from which it is easy for web and mobile apps to make simple data queries. This has been utilised by for example Helsinki Region Traffic HRT, which already gave everyone open access to its public transport timetables and routes in 2009. Dozens of mobile services developed by both companies and individuals conduct millions of data searches on the interface every year. The only investment HRT had to make was to open up the interface. The cost of making data accessible is usually minimal compared to the total cost of a data system.

“The building and maintenance of the open interfaces of our Journey Planner service have cost us 60 000 euro in three years. Over the years, we have spent a total of approximately 5 million on developing the Journey Planner,” HRT Project Manager Jari Honkonen confirms.

Mayor Pajunen points out that the Ahjo Explorer app has not cost Helsinki city a penny either. It was born because Jouni Tiainen, an independent app developer, wanted to build an easy way for people to access the city’s decision making data.

But clever standalone mobile apps alone have not propelled Helsinki to the top of the world’s Smart City rankings. The city owes its success to the underlying basic philosophy, the transparency of public information. In 2011, the Ahjo decision making system gave 5000 civil servants and local politicians access to a paperless office. The system gained international recognition when the programming interface by Code fellow Juha Yrjölä expanded its potential user base to millions. Today, any citizen, journalist or data enthusiast can explore Helsinki city’s decision making documents from anywhere in the world, around the clock.

Openness as a philosophy

A discussion in the meeting room of Forum Virium Helsinki revolves around visiting the local health care centre. The current users of Kallio health care centre are asked about what services they would like to find in the wellbeing centres of the future.

Forum Virium Helsinki’s Smart Kalasatama project is mapping residents’ expectations for their health care services. The information will be used in planning the new social services and health care centre of the Kalasatama district. The focus group quickly gets to the core challenges of any public health care system. Getting care is the biggest bottleneck. Some would like to book appointments in the web, while others even suggest doctor’s appointments via Skype. People are also keen to access their own health data.

The Smart Kalasatama project is conducted in close cooperation with the City of Helsinki Department of Social Services and Health Care. Project Manager Veera Mustonen is happy that users have been involved from the very beginning.

“The best way forward is service design, planning services that are based on user needs.”

Building a new city district requires millions in investment. How do Forum Virium Helsinki’s operating methods, agile piloting and user engagement fit in with creating city infrastructure?

Hannu Penttilä, the Deputy Mayor of Helsinki

“When the basic infrastructure of the city functions well, it gives good support for innovations. As the development unit of the city, Forum Virium Helsinki can achieve a great deal,” says Hannu Penttilä, the Deputy Mayor of Helsinki.

“Of course you need a basic infrastructure for the city, but it can have smart elements,” claims Hannu Penttilä, the Deputy Mayor of Helsinki.

Rubbish trucks are a rare sight on the streets of Kalasatama – the bins empty themselves. Sucked by a vacuum into underground pipelines, banana peels whizz into the local waste management facility at a speed of up to 70 kilometres per hour. The electricity grid is also intelligent. In the smart grid, energy and information travel in two directions, meaning that the grid’s customers can also be energy producers. A huge energy storage system is being planned for the new Kalasatama electrical substation, with a capacity equivalent to the peak output of about 4000 solar panels.

“But in addition to this, what we need is people’s creativity. When the basic infrastructure works, people can build their own innovations on top of it. Helsinki’s Restaurant Day is a great example of this.”

Penttilä believes the new smart city services are an ideal creative playground for Forum Virium Helsinki. In Kalasatama, he hopes to witness services that will make people’s everyday lives easier. As the city’s development unit, Forum Virium Helsinki has the potential to make a huge difference.

“At best, it can be a bridge between corporate innovations and the city. And that is exactly what we need.”

The pilot culture bears fruit

The agile pilot culture is suitable for a vast range of projects and experiments.

“It has been ideal for schools, as well as for personal, preventative healthcare. And, of course, for any IT services,” Jarmo Eskelinen lists.

Nowadays, it seems that public sector is alone in conducting IT procurement focused on large project entities. Eskelinen highlights the change that Todd Park, the Chief Technology Officer of the White House, set off on the other side of the Atlantic. The most important IT decision maker of the United States administration has revolutionized IT procurement.

“All their IT projects are based on agile development. They are led by small teams, which always include outsiders, whether they’re geeks or developers. Even in the largest projects the first prototype is out after just a few months,” Eskelinen points out.

According to Eskelinen, small companies’ web service development methods are an apt model for the public sector, too.

“You build the first version quickly, launch it and see what kind of feedback you get. This method should be embraced throughout the public sector.”

“The whole paradigm should be turned around, making service development projects into processes that push out products as quickly as possible. The development then kicks off and continues for a couple of years. Now what happens is that you make specifications for a couple of years, then order the work and implement it. The project ends just when it would be time to improve it.”

IT projects’ agile development methods work for other aspects of city development, too. For example, the city’s decision-making data was opened up as a consequence of civil servants and citizen activists meeting up face to face in April 2012. In a workshop organized by Forum Virium Helsinki, some twenty officials and app developers got together for the first time. This three-hour session resulted in a concrete plan to open up the decision making data stored in the Ahjo system. Just one year later, the data was open to the general public and the Mayor alike.

Digital services are easy to duplicate

The shortest route from Helsinki City Hall to the Kalasatama building site can be quickly checked from a mobile phone. In many cities, this is the pinnacle of current service development, but in Helsinki it’s been part of citizen’s everyday lives for several years. City Navigator developed by Helsinki’s public transport company HRT, can now be used for navigating in many other European cities, too.

“When cities were primarily made of bricks and concrete, it was totally natural to produce all services locally,” Jarmo Eskelinen says.

“But when it comes to electronic services, repeating everything locally is a big drawback. Cities wind up paying the same development costs over and over again, hundreds of times.”

“For Forum Virium Helsinki’s CitySDK project, Helsinki implemented an open issue-reporting API. The interface is based on the Open311 stardard, which is already in use in cities like Washington, San Francisco and Bonn. It enables anyone to report a fault or problem to the city, not just by calling but also by using an app on their computer or smartphone.

“This has been pioneering work, not only on a European scale but in the entire world, too. Cities haven’t yet developed that many shared operating models.”

“Another novelty was the city’s co-operation with companies in developing the service. The people from the Sanoma group and the Helsinki City Board’s ICT Division worked together in the same room,” Eskelinen says.

Today, the Open311 interface, piloted first with the city newspaper Metro, is used by multiple web services. The CitySDK project is spreading the Helsinki-tested interface to other cities, too. This ensures that the easily duplicated operating model can one day be used for profitable business.

“A city the size of Helsinki is not a business in itself. Any new services have to be expandable and scalable, ideally worldwide,” Eskelinen deliberates.

Solutions from the community

Forum Virium Helsinki’s development projects solve public sector problems, but the solutions are created together with companies and citizens.

“Because it’s so difficult to make everything work together, we support open and communal ways of doing things,” Eskelinen says.

City challenges are often tackled as community projects, but joined in by citizen activists and companies alike. Mayor Pajunen is full of enthusiasm for the communal operating model.

“Citizens want to experience and do things together and get involved in city issues, while the city can open up its data and become an enabler. It’s a multiple win-win-win situation. Better co-operation with lower costs,” Pajunen muses.

The evolution of web services has reached the era of free service platforms. Blogs are written on WordPress, the Airbnb service brokers accommodation around the world, and collectables sales are soaring on eBay.

“The same operating model will take over city services, too,” Eskelinen predicts.

The short term dream of the CEO of Forum Virium Helsinki is fluent digital citizenship in Helsinki. City services should be accessible electronically as well as physically.

A little further into the future he visualizes an international revolution, a shared digital service toolkit for open cities.

“We hope that more and more cities will join us, adding more elements into the toolkit,” Eskelinen explains.

The Mayor finds plenty of use for an open-minded development unit.

“Forum Virium Helsinki is an ideal partner when you’re looking for a flexible operating model for applying new technology. They’re there to talk about radical innovations, which go into an unknown territory,” Jussi Pajunen says.

 

The original article was published in Forum Virium Helsinki’s publication “Building an open city”.
>> Link to the publication 

Text: Petja Partanen, Tarinatakomo
Pictures: Okko Oinonen, Petja Partanen

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