TED Talk: Coding for the public good


Let´s build better digital tools for our cities! Coding for the public good is a global movement, from the US to Japan, from Mexico, to Pakistan developers are using their skills to hold government to account and to make life easier for all of us.

In Chicago for example civic developers help public authorities to collect information on food poisoning outbreaks. They´ve created a website that connects people who complain about food poisoning on Twitter to the people who can help them out—  the Chicago Department of Public Health. The project is helping to make Chicago a healthier place – within just one year it has helped initiate over 170 food inspections throughout the city.

Another great example comes from Mexico City, where developers and designers are using their skills to help residents to make smarter and safer transportation decisions. Illegal taxis are a big safety concern in Mexico City, so they’ve created a verification app called Traxi, which allows riders to look up a number and see whether a taxi is a safe and legal one.

Let´s take a look at an example from Berlin. Let me tell you a little story.

In 1948, the Soviet army decided to clamp down on Berlin, and cut off supplies from the west of Germany. Berlin, now under siege, was saved by 386 hectares of open land in its center: the Tempelhof airport. The Airlift, at its peak, had 1500 flights a day going in and out of the airport to supply Berliners with food.

Today, the airport is a living memorial: the vast, open field is used by Berlin residents, who enjoy sports, barbecues and walks down the former runway. So it’s not a surprise that a proposal by the Berlin government to build affordable housing on parts of the site was a controversial issue that led to a referendum.

This referendum was not without trouble, because citizens had to decide between three different options in a complex matter of zoning law.

This is Stefan Wehrmeyer, a passionate developer and one of the residents who lives right next to the airstrip. When he’s not busy coding, Stefan likes to take his drone out for a walk across the tarmac. Tempelhof, in a way, belongs to people like Stefan.

In the weeks leading up to the referendum, Stefan’s mailbox was filled with leaflets from the city government and activist groups. Each side was trying to convince voters of a particular option.

Stefan didn’t take their word for it. As a geek, Stefan wanted to see some data before he made a decision. So he sat down learned a new web technology and generated an in browser 3D simulation based on the blueprints put forward by the city. The outcome was a visualization which helped citizens to actually see and understand the planned construction, with very little effort.

What started as an experiment of his own became a collaboration between Stefan and the data visualization team of a local newspaper, the Berliner Morgenpost. They picked up his graphic, which became the central part of their coverage of the referendum. – The team just received an award for their infographic from the German Press Agency.


Whether in Berlin, Chicago or Mexcio City, local developers use data to change the way they understand their cities and to participate in public decisions. What they need as a resource is government data, from budget documents, to bus schedules. While the data is already collected and aggregated by public administration and city governments, using it is often still dependent on making individual contracts and negotiating data release.

To fulfill its potential, all public data has to be open by default and available to everyone.

That´s why we’ve set up Code for Germany. A network of volunteer developers, designers and engaged citizens who meet in cities all over Germany to build digital tools and visualizations that help to improve their neighborhoods and cities.

Since the kickoff in February the community has contributed over 5000 hours of coding. They help citizens find nursery school spots for their kids, inform about construction in neighborhoods, help check and compare the quality of the local drinking water and many more.

Our community explores the possibilities of technology in urban life, and demonstrates the usefulness of public data. This creates an incentive for governments not just to open up their data but also to rethink the way in which they govern.

The data Stefan and the Code for Germany community use can also have tremendous implications and commercial potential for entrepreneurs, startups and established businesses.

Economic analysis has confirmed the significant contribution to economic growth and productivity achievable through an open data agenda. According to the Omidyar network, governments, the private sector, individuals and communities all stand to benefit from the innovation and information that will inform investment, drive the creation of new industries, and inform decision making and research. Open data could achieve more than half of the G20’s 2% growth target.

There are startups like Snips from Paris. Who leverage social and urban data to understand how people interact with cities. They model the risk of accidents by analyzing the context in which they occur, such as the traffic, weather and street topology. Imagine what benefits clever data analysis like this could have once it is integrated in maps and used by urban planning departments of cities.

Or look at greatschools.org from the US, that uses state data to analyze the quality of schools. They are the leading national source of school information, reaching 52 million parents that can make sure that their children are getting the education they deserve.

Businesses like greatschools.org and Snips are good examples of how companies can complement government services and help citizens make better decisions. And they are just two of many examples, in which public data drives economic growth and contributes to the common good.

Whether we’re thinking about engaged citizens like Stefan who are eager to improve the city they live; companies and startups who are seeking the next business opportunity; or governments that strive to provide citizens with state of the art services and who want to make the best decisions possible: Open data creates a win-win situation for everyone.

Open data are the building blocks that help us redesign our cities for the 21st century, to be environmentally sustainable, socially just and engaging for citizens.

I want each of you to think about the digital structures you want to see in your city. What are the building blocks you need, to bring your city forward? Let´s open up the data and let´s create an ecosystem that can turn them into services and tools for everybody.