Setting up ArtAround in San Diego

Posted on 03/25/2012 by OpenSanDiego

It’s been nearly a month since we hosted our Code Across America event at SDSU’s Viz Center, and I’m just now getting around to writing about it, and particularly, the excellent work done by the team who worked on the ArtAround App.

Overall the event was a great success. We got a great mix of developers, designers, and simply curious citizens to spend a beautiful Saturday inside talking about how to make San Diego better. We also got a visit from Bonnie Dumanis, our district attorney and mayoral candidate. Bonnie shared her thoughts on the importance of open government with the group, but spent most of her time listening in and learning from other participants. I also want to publicly thank her for donating $250 to Open San Diego. I’m proud that everything we’ve done so far is the result of 100% pure volunteerism, but Bonnie’s donation is going to help us cover the expenses of becoming a real non-profit.

But enough about the event. Dave Maass already wrote a blog post about the it at San Diego CityBeat, and Xavier Leonard has already written a recap of the work put into setting up Azavea’s excellent Open Data Catalog here in San Diego. This post is about our plans to set up a sustainable version of ArtAround here in San Diego.

ArtAround is a web and mobile-based application designed to create a “comprehensive, living map of all public [art] in DC.” Notably, it’s a public-private partnership between the DC Commission for the Arts and Humanities and the Washington DC Economic Partnership. The software that powers the app is open-source, so we installed it on an EC2 server the night before the event and the ArtAround team used the event to discuss how to make it work in San Diego.

They immediately noticed that it was built based on the concept of DC’s “wards” rather than what we just call “neighborhoods.” Not a big deal. It wouldn’t be too difficult to swap DC’s wards out for San Diego’s neighborhoods and even include neighborhoods in Tijuana, all the way down to Puerto Nuevo.

Beyond that, the team discussed what it would take to make the app acutally work. That is, can we set it up, keep it running, fill it with useful data, get people to use it, and support it? What would we need? We were particularly lucky to have Kinsee Morlan in attendance, who, as CityBeat’s arts editor, was able to point out a number of existing resources of data that we could include in the app. Here’s what the team came up with:

  • Task: Deploy the service. Update the look of the site. Deploy it and the iPhone and Android apps. NEED: Rails coder, web artist, iOS coder, Android coder.
  • Task: Gather existing data and put it into the app as a starter set of data. NEED: Web-friendly data volunteers with some art knowledge.
  • Task: Write the “about this” and FAQ sections. NEED: Copy writer and/or editor.
  • Task: Develop a PR campaign to get the app in front of people both in San Diego and tourists. Bring in Balboa Park, SD CVB, ArtWalk, South Park business association, universities. NEED: Public Relations and Marketing volunteer, and some represenative of the app.
  • Create a sticker or sign to add to public art, put it at the airport. NEED: Graphic artist volunteer.
  • Launch event/party/tour? NEED: event planning volunteer, some funding.
  • Ongoing: Ask groups like Urban Art Trail to contribute lists of their artwork. NEED: Point-of-contact coordinator.
  • Ongoing: Manage the data and keep track of flagged items. NEED: Data quality team volunteers and community manager.

(you can see more of the team’s notes in this Google Doc)

As you can see, it’s a lot of work. One thing that the list doesn’t explicitly mention, but hints at, is the need for a leader. This is why I think it’s notable that ArtAround is the work of two groups already working to make DC better. For this to work in San Diego, we’ll need someone to own the project and drive it forward. We proved that there are San Diegans willing to volunteer to support it, but we still need someone to drive the project. If you think you’re that person, let me know at

I’m usually skeptical about the “let’s build an app!” approach to open government, but this exercise made me think twice. It was really useful because it showed how a piece of useful software can bring together various groups from the city – designers, coders, community managers, the media, and civic-minded citizens – to create a public good.

My usual grumble about building apps is that it’s easy to deploy a quick app, but very difficult to keep it alive. I don’t want people to believe that simply deploying an app is a solution per se. Rather, it’s just the beginning of much longer project. The great thing about apps, however, is that they’re great proofs of concept that we can use to start deeper conversations about how to make things better.

So, the conversation continues… Watch this space for updates on ArtAround San Diego as we proceed! And again, if you want to volunteer on this project, write me at

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