Forum Virium Helsinki is developing the city in a new way. But what do agility and user-led development mean in practice?

Developing the city operations is a challenging task. It is easy to gauge the success from how committed city officials and service users are to it.

Forum Virium Helsinki, the development unit of the City of Helsinki, has gained plenty of skills and experience from its projects over the years.

“Forum Virium Helsinki has introduced the operating models of small software companies to development of city services,” says Development Director Pekka Koponen. The Helsinki Region Infoshare project is a good example of this. Ville Meloni, who used to work as the managing director of a start-up, was hired to launch and run the project.

Development work can only succeed when it’s linked to the everyday work in the city organisation. The leader of the HRI project was rarely seen at the office of Forum Virium Helsinki.

“Ville would usually work at the premises of City of Helsinki Urban Facts, together with city employees,” Koponen explains.

Another sign of a good development project is that it’s not indefinite. When the time is right, it can be handed over.

“The Helsinki Region Infoshare open data project is now looked after by City of Helsinki Urban Facts, as part of the city’s everyday operations,” Koponen highlights.

Many people who work in the public sector are averse to new development projects, because they think they slow down real work. Are there any grounds for such fears about Forum Virium Helsinki’s projects?

“I hope not,” Jarmo Eskelinen laughs.

“To us, our projects are more than just projects. We want to build a thriving, well-functioning city, and any project is a means to that end.”

Forum Virium Helsinki’s projects are experimentation in nature. New ideas are tested together and lessons are learnt along the way. The first version of any service is released to the public as quickly as possible, after which it is developed according to user feedback. This is exactly how the Open Ahjo API was born.

1. Recognise the problem

The Ahjo document management system, launched in the summer of 2011, introduced the paperless office to 5 000 City of Helsinki officials and municipal politicians. The decision-making data collected in Ahjo was all labelled as public, but the information was not accessible to citizens. Would it be possible to create an open API to the city’s document management system, in order to provide free and easy access to the data?

People working for the Helsinki Region Infoshare project of Forum Virium Helsinki decided to facilitate opening up Ahjo’s data.

2. Commit Key Partners

A shared goal is the key to a successful development project. In the case of Ahjo, it was different people who were responsible for the technology, and content of the system. The leader of the HRI project gathered all the stakeholders together. Everyone around the negotiating table agreed that an open data interface would be worth the effort.

An investment of few tens of thousands would create an open data interface to Ahjo, already a data system worth three million euros. At its best, the data content of Ahjo could be used in totally new ways.

3. Involve users

The aim was to launch a small project for opening up data, which would be quick to implement and as useful as possible to applications developers. The project started with an open invitation shared on social media, bringing a full house of curious people to Forum Virium Helsinki’s workshop.

The three-hour session attracted a mixed crowd of officials, citizen democracy activists and IT enthusiasts. The discussion was fruitful. City officials discovered the opportunities that open municipal data would provide to data proponents. Citizen activists, on the other hand, understood why city officials couldn’t just open up public data by the click of a button.

A well-organised workshop produces results. The session resulted in a concrete plan for opening up the city’s decision-making data.

4. Piloting

In Forum Virium Helsinki’s projects, the goal is to make the first version of any service public as quickly as possible. This is why the interface was ordered from Tieto, who had originally created the entire Ahjo system.

With the HRI team working tirelessly behind the scenes, the key stakeholders of the Ahjo system were overjoyed. The agendas and minutes of the municipal council, board and committees were about to become open data.

“The information is now available around the clock through the interface. It is no longer necessary to call or visit the registry of the City Hall,” says Katja Räisänen, the leading expert of the Ahjo system.

Project implementation rarely happens without challenges. The biggest task was to ensure that confidential material, including residents’ personal information, would still remain private. Finally, in March 2013, the transparency of City of Helsinki governance took a great leap forward. The first version of the interface coded into the Ahjo system was added to the HRI data catalogue.

5. Improve and gather feedback

Many development projects end when they actually should begin. User feedback revealed that application developers needed advanced search features to the Ahjo’s data content. The Code Fellow of the City of Helsinki, Juha Yrjölä, got down to work. His improvements changed the data interface into a more developer-friendly REST interface, which enabled searching for specific information. Yrjölä also spurred application developers on with the Päätökset.fi (‘Decisions’) web service, which made it easy to search for decisions per home district.

Now municipal decisions were in a machine-readable format that was accessible via any online service. Application developers were excited by the possibilities. Soon several mobile and online applications were making use of the data content offered by the city. One of those was Ahjo Explorer, the favourite app of Mayor Jussi Pajunen.

The original text: Petja Partanen, Tarinatakomo.