Currently wrapping up: day one of a fascinating two-day conference at City Hall on Web 2.0 and the internet’s potential to revolutionize civic engagement. The entire thing is being streamed, and anyone interested in the issues should really just start watching. The summit features a broad array of speakers and panellists, ranging from directors of various city departments to prominent web developers and activists to councillors and citizens relaying their day-to-day experiences to the city’s existing sites and interfaces.
The highlight of the summit thus far has been Mark Surman’s keynote address. His speech was a clarion call for open-source development that simultaneously asks government to step up and make it easy for us all to get the information we need and asks citizens to stop expecting the government to built all the applications and interfaces they want and to pitch in themselves. Drawing on the model of Mozilla and the creation of Firefox, Surman laid out the case for throwing open the floodgates of information and engagement. Rather than expecting the city and all its agencies to develop our collective wish-list of online services, he says, we need to get in the game ourselves. As everything from Google applications to Barack Obama’s campaign for president has shown, interested individuals and activist communities are better at this than large organizations. The city’s job is—or should be—to freely supply the data that we need to access and let interested citizens have their way with it. Surman challenged the city to release everything from the library catalogue, to detailed TTC schedules, with the idea that interested citizens would be able to quickly and easily build applications to make this information as useable as possible. MyTTC.ca is a great example of this, though it was laboriously built without the benefit of the TTC’s raw data: the developers had to essentially recreate and input all that information, making the process vastly more difficult that it needed to be.
Surman kept returning to the idea that Web 2.0 needn’t require any one player to do all the heavy lifting: “It is not about the city doing the work: it is about creating permeable boundaries…\the topic here is not what the city can do, it is what the city can enable.” In part this is a challenge to government to cede control of its information, and in part it’s a challenge to the community to stop whining that the city isn’t at the forefront of providing web services. The heart of Web 2.0 is that users don’t just receive information but generate it, manipulate it, mash it up—it’s a call for volunteerism and civic participation as much as it is for getting the city on board. Washington D.C. recently held a competition called Apps for Democracy: it released a boatload of data and challenged citizens to use it to create applications they would find helpful. The results were a weird and wonderful array of innovations, some of which will undoubtedly be forgotten quickly, others of which may rapidly become indispensable.
One of Surman’s most promising suggestions was that cities shouldn’t just use the web to release information, they should use the web to gather it as well. Following examples in other cities, it could do anything from crowdsourcing to gather data on the location of potholes to building a wiki that would generate community-driven planning priorities.
Mayor Miller seemed receptive to at least some of these suggestions. He promised, for instance, that by June of next year the city would convert TTC scheduling and route information into a useable format so that Toronto could join in the fun that is Google Transit. Many participants from various city departments were visibly nervous at the prospect of this much interaction: they expressed worries about everything from processing a massive influx of information to managing the city’s brand in this new and open-sourced world. We don’t expect that the floodgates will, in fact, open tomorrow. As with all innovations, bureaucracies are hesitant to take on initiatives the consequences of which they can’t fully envision. Nonetheless, the level of interest appears to be high—turning over two days to this summit raises it beyond the level of a mere publicity exercise. We’re very excited at the growing recognition that allowing us to pay for parking tickets online is just a starting point and can only hope that the curiosity we’re witnessing at this summit leads to a much deeper openness and engagement between citizens and the municipality.
Hat tip to blogTO. Bottom photo by bensonkua from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.