Introducing the Torontoist Civic Tech Column

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Introducing the Torontoist Civic Tech Column

Open data and civic tech can serve the public good, but they need to be understood in relation to underlying issues in the city.

This is the debut of a new column on civic tech and open data in Toronto. We’ll explore the possibilities and limits of the developing field, and the opportunities to build a better city.

Screenshot from Map Your Property.

Screenshot from Map Your Property.


Condo developments. Homeless shelter use. Rental building buy-outs and the loss of affordable housing. Each of these housing changes move through different City processes and divisions and leave a trail of valuable data that helps us better understand our city. Opening up this kind of data and building civic tech around these processes can support a better, more inclusive discussion about city planning, but getting to that point isn’t easy.

One of Toronto’s most vocal advocates for the release of City planning open data is Devin Tu, CEO of Map Your Property. Open data provided by the City is data that is proactively published in machine-readable formats, free to use, free to reuse, and listed on Toronto’s Open Data portal. Devin’s company uses planning data to serve the real estate and professional planning community. His product helps developers and planners do their work more efficiently by summarizing zoning, land-use, water and environmental variables, nearby development applications, and other items related to any lot of land in 10 municipalities, including Toronto.

Devin’s case presents an interesting quirk that’s consistent within the open data movement. What he does with planning data once it’s open is (literally) his business. But that data is not just open for him to use–it’s open to everyone. If you flip the equation, and ask why residents may want more planning data, there are several reasons and opportunities (and a whack of related challenges to manage once it’s out in the wild).

In Australia, PlanningAlerts, a civic tech project of the OpenAustralia Foundation, uses development application data sourced from various city council websites. Visit the site, enter your street address and email address, and you’re signed up for email alerts about planning applications within 2 kilometres of where you live or work.

Screenshot from PlanningAlerts.

Screenshot from PlanningAlerts.

Toronto residents have long asked for better notification about new developments in their area. Could we have this tool in Toronto? Yep. Not only could this tool be created, the work was started last year on a project called Toronto Planning Applications, lead by Josh Zucker, at a Civic Tech Toronto weekly hack night. Planning application information is not open data–but it is public and listed in various places on the City’s website. It’s just not easy to get or to use. Enter the scraper. Scrapers are tools created to take (scrape) information from websites and publish it in a more useful format. The Toronto Planning Applications project has built the beginning of a scraper for planning application data; its output can be downloaded here (note: this is not a full data set and the tool is a work in progress).

Scrapers are powerful tools in civic tech, which can be used to work around old IT systems, pre-automated workflows and myriad other challenges that stand in the way of getting government data released as open data. Another example of a scraper in action pulls Toronto shelter usage stats from the City’s website. Melissa Goldstein, a housing advocate with Housing Action Now, identified a painful inefficiency in the work required to track the usage of Toronto’s homeless shelters. Data on shelter usage is made available on a daily basis via the City’s website. If you are researching the use of Toronto’s homeless shelters you have to visit the City web page daily for the most recent update. Melissa asked if the collection of this data could be automated. CBC data journalist William Wolfe-Wylie confirmed that it could be, and built the first version of the scraper. While the quality of this shelter usage data and the additional information needed to truly understand it warrants another discussion entirely, this tool provides a small support in tracking trends.

“Quantitative data is never objective, unbiased information. It never reflects the full story, and it’s hard to know what it actually represents,” says Goldstein. “Civic tech people need to involve themselves in the issues too, and not just think of themselves as data technicians that can be called in to fix problems like plumbers. Data isn’t a leaky faucet. It’s messy, complicated, and potentially dangerous.”

The realm of using open data in public engagement shows promising applications, assuming these new tools are connected to well-developed consultation programs. CoUrbanize, in Boston, is using tech to promote better conversations between residents and real estate developers. StreetMix, initially a Code for America project, lets you design streets–an exercise relevant to current City of Toronto work on Complete Streets Design Guidelines.

Screenshot from Streetmix.

Screenshot from Streetmix.

While 2D renderings of new buildings or proposed changes to streets, parks and gardens can give you an idea of what change will look like, imagine a virtual reality experience using geospatial data and Google Cardboard that would let you walk through them. This is all doable today. An upside to using these kinds of tools to facilitate community conversation is that the real estate development community could pay for them, making an investment in public consultation another cost of doing business.

Civic tech doesn’t change the need for the fundamentals–public consultation, advocacy, and political action. Digital literacy, tech education and the digital divide are other areas where immense supports and infrastructure are required; many households in Toronto lack computers and internet access. But the case remains that the more data that’s out there and the more tools the community has to use can only serve to support better understanding and civic conversation.


Bianca Wylie is the head of the Open Data Institute Toronto.

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