It’s 2017. Almost everyone has a mobile device in their hands when walking down the streets. But is there a way to boost citizen engagement through technology and make a difference in where we live?
Ham Karami believes so.
Coming to Taipei two years ago from Toronto, Canada, the 26-year-old is the founder of Mapgea, an app using open data to bring citizens together to solve problems in cities — or enabling “superhero citizens,” in Karami’s words.
From finding the closest public restroom to reporting a full waste bin or typhoon damage, Mapgea does it all. The app launched its iOS version last May and has since generated over 3,000 downloads. It is currently available in English and Chinese.
Taiwan was ranked first for the transparency of its government data among 122 countries and areas in 2015 by U.K.-based Open Knowledge Foundation.
“I found a lot of value in open data, and I want to bring it down to a citizen level and put it in the hands of people living in the city,” says Karami.
The News Lens spoke with Karami to learn more about building the app in Taipei and future plans for Mapgea.
The News Lens: What inspired you to create Mapgea?
Ham Karami: I have always been into mobile and entrepreneurship, and stumbled upon Mapgea when I faced two problems [in Taipei]; one was navigating the city as a traveler, and the other was the old-school communication system between me as someone living in the city and the government running the city. Sometimes you want to be a bigger part of where you live but I feel like that process is still ancient.
So I created Mapgea out of realizing how strong Taiwan’s open data program is. Currently, the open data is mostly being used by corporations and data analytic companies which make strategic urban planning initiatives, real estate initiatives and so on.
At first, it started out as this very small project; I wanted to find things you couldn’t necessarily find on Google Maps. After a lot of research, we found we could solve a bigger problem: now we have these public facilities (parking spaces, bike-share, waste bins and restrooms) marked, why not allow users to relay their experiences back as smart data you can action on? For example, directing people to waste bins and allowing them to file a report if it’s full. The response data can then be correlated with truck waste collection routes and an optimization strategy can be developed.
TNL: What are the main features of Mapgea and what is planned for the future?
Karami: Our future report feature will allow users to take photos of a pothole, typhoon damage in the city or so on. After the photo is taken, our app collects where they are standing, which way they are facing, time of day, sends a Google address short link and users can choose what they are reporting. So we are trying to make instantaneous a process that currently takes days or many minutes over the phone and create a sharing economy through our app where citizens can have a voice straight away. The report photo will not only get sent to the correct government department but will also go on Mapgea Taipei’s Facebook page. This way the government will be publicly responsible as well.
We go through reports manually to filter out anything that doesn’t look like a report, and this is how we plan to continue doing it in the future. We will put in safety procedures but I think the overall benefit of the program far outdoes the potential of few spammers.
Another cool feature of our app is we are one of the first companies in the world to show live space availability for parking in over 300 parking spaces in Taipei. Our future plan for this is to enable users to reserve a parking space but we need to get cooperation from the government and partnerships with parking companies for it to work.
TNL: So you must have been working closely with the Taiwanese government, right?
Karami: We have met with them a few times but I can’t speak Chinese and the other two members are engineers that aren’t really the meeting type. So I would love to have a super-close relationship with the government but unfortunately we are still trying.
Also, with the government, it’s not like a relationship you get with a private company, it takes a lot of time. So as we push and prove these are the problems we want to solve hopefully they will open up the doors a bit more. But we are still a corporation so I don’t blame them for being safe.
TNL: Is the app is currently only available for Taipei?
Karami: Yes. But I have Toronto and London ready in my iTunes connect. There are still a week and a half of changes we need to make, and then we will launch those two. Our next city will be New York.
TNL: How do you plan to make a profit?
Karami: I haven’t put much thought into revenue. The way I think about it is: First, make an awesome platform; second, get as many users as possible; third, make them come back and keep using it. And when we are there, when we have the users generating all the data we want to generate, we can sell.
We are also thinking about taking a bit off the top of the reservation fee for our parking feature. But the biggest sell we want to do is still the smart data — data that can make an impact.
TNL: It sounds like a lot of social responsibility is going into Mapgea. Did you think about registering as a social enterprise or social business?
Karami: We want to be social with profit because the things I want to continue working on will require more money. It’s not that I’m taking the money from the users; it’s optimizing government operations and taking the money they have saved. That revenue can go back into the platform and make it even better so we can address more problems. If we settle for a social business we have to rely on grants, and that may be the end.
TNL: How are you currently funding Mapgea?
Karami: My bank account.
TNL: As a foreigner, what do you think about the startup environment in Taiwan?
Karami: It is well-equipped while being fairly new, so it’s hard to feel lonely as a startup founder here. There are lots of resources and events for you to meet people and mentors. Investment is still not there but there are a lot of things to look forward to.
One thing Taiwanese people should do is take the dive more. It’s always better to have the scars of failures, especially in entrepreneurship. It’s okay to fail. Also, the more media coverage given to startups, the more comfortable people might be in becoming an entrepreneur.
Download Mapgea here.
Editor: Edward White