The City solicited public feedback on the services it provides. Here's how one guy made the resulting data usable.
Politicians like to think they represent the people. While we often get to hear their voices, more rare is the opportunity to dig into the individual opinions of the public. Yesterday, those opinions became easier to access when local web developer Brian Gilham launched a new website called What Toronto Said. What Toronto Said culls the nearly 13,000 responses the city received when it solicited public feedback in May and June for its Core Service Review, and makes them easier to access.
It was simple for Gilham to get a hold of the response data, as it can be downloaded from the City of Toronto website. Making use of the results was less simple, given that they come in the form of a giant spreadsheet. What Toronto Said makes the information more user-friendly by organizing it and making it searchable.
“A lot of the information is released [by the city] in formats that are meant to be read by machines and are not really friendly for human consumption,” Gilham explains. To deal with that problem, he wrote a script that imported the spreadsheet data into a database. Then, he wrote some code to turn that data into a website with search functionality and a pleasant interface.
Using What Toronto Said, finding out how many Torontonians mentioned bike lanes during the Core Service Review is as easy as filling out a search term. Typing in “bicycle lanes,” “bike lanes,” “bicycles,” and “bikes” nets about 900 responses—each with demographic information such as age, income, and geographic location.
Gilham says he took on the task because he had been following the Core Service Review “pretty closely.” He felt it would “inevitably impact almost everyone in the city” and wanted to make information easier for people to comprehend. “Really getting a sense of what my fellow citizens are saying is important to me and hopefully also important to other people,” he says.
With the ability to view responses based on postal code, What Toronto Said gives insight into how perspectives shift across the city, and also how much opinions can vary, even in a small area. In the Etobicoke region of M9R, one resident complains that middle-class voters aren’t being well represented and that social programs should be scaled back, while another lists “adequate housing for all,” “accessible transportation for all,” and “access to all social services when they’re needed,” as top priorities for 2011. Yet another response appears to have taken the Ford mantra to heart: the respondent asks the City to prioritize the hunt for inefficiencies and redundancies in the budget, but then adds, “if necessary, property taxes and user fees should be increased.”
The search tool has the potential to lay bare hidden linkages. Divides between Torontonians are often said to be based on geography alone, but what if another parameter was as good an indicator (or a better one) for similar perspectives among people?
Currently, searches on What Toronto Said can only be based on key terms or postal code, but Gilham says the site will continually be improved, and he hopes to have searches based other parameters, such as income, in the future. In addition, Gilham says the site will be more visual, with charts and graphs to help convey search results. (We can already imagine the numerous infographics that could result from this.)
He hopes that the site will be used by politicians and constituents alike. “As this process goes on,” he says, “What Toronto Said can continue to serve as a great tool not only for everyday people, but hopefully for the people making decisions as well.”