Public Works: Opening Up Our Data
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Public Works: Opening Up Our Data

Open data is changing the way cities work.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Could a better open data program make City Hall more responsive to the needs of Torontonians? Photo by dialeleven, from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Could a better open-data program make City Hall more responsive to the needs of Torontonians? Photo by dialeleven, from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Everyone’s talking about data these days. And while it may be disconcerting to think that your drunken Facebook likes and late-night Google searches are lurking like reputational time bombs in secret Californian data dungeons, that information is also teaching organizations how to give you more of what you want, more efficiently.

The concept of open data, as it applies to municipal government, is still relatively new, but it’s catching on fast. In essence, open data means taking information a municipality has gathered and making it available to the public. And cities gather a lot of information; everything from noise complaints, to building permits issued, to fire station locations, to rat sightings.

Once the data is out in the wild, it can be accessed by citizens curious about their city, their neighborhood, or their pet hot-button issue, as well as by third parties looking to build apps and maps that use the data in new and interesting ways.

The idea has been picked up by governments eager to enhance both transparency and efficiency. There are open-data initiatives underway in cities like Boston, Edmonton, and Vancouver. The provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Ontario are all on board. And so is Toronto.

But the current gold standard is New York City, where mayor Michael Bloomberg—who got rich selling financial data to businesses—has commissioned a dedicated team to source new efficiencies by combing through the billions of bytes the metropolis generates daily.

The so-called “geek squad,” under former lawyer and prosecutor Michael Flowers, locates and cross-references data sources to produce new solutions to old problems. A recent New York Times article discusses how the team cross-checked grease-clogged sewers against the locations of restaurants that didn’t have a company registered to take away their grease, and were able to pinpoint dining establishments that were illegally pouring burger-juice down their drains.

Toronto was an early adopter of open data. The City’s program was jump-started back in April 2009, when then-mayor David Miller told the world at that year’s Mesh Conference that the city would be publishing open data sets by the end of that year.

During an interview, Trish Garner, the contagiously enthusiastic manager of Toronto’s Open Data portal, puts it this way: “This was truly an oh-oh moment for us. With the weight of the mayor’s office behind us and the help of a local community advocate, we chased down any and all ‘low-hanging fruit’—anything that could easily be made public, in whatever form—and launched the Open Data site by November.”

Today the portal offers over 100 data sets for public use.

Unlike New York, Toronto doesn’t have a dedicated team of data detectives. The Open Data work is done by a “small but agile” group, comprising staff from the the City’s IT division and the city clerk’s office. Nobody works on the project on a full-time basis.

One downside of limited resources is that much of the data provided online remains in raw form, meaning it’s not always easy for the average person to read or understand. (Garner says people who aren’t “power users” are encouraged to ask for help by email). Nevertheless, City-supplied data has been used in many useful third-party applications, such as Adam Schwabe’s Rocket Radar.

Garner says that a key part of the team’s work is communicating and sharing ideas, as well as collaborating with other organizations. In 2010, the first four major Canadian cities to open up data—Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton and Vancouver—formed what Canada’s open-data people now refer to as the G4. The group is consulted by the federal government, provinces, and other municipalities on open-government licencing issues and open-data formats and standards. The G4 conducts monthly conference calls to compare ideas and experiences.

Toronto has also partnered with the Province of Ontario to form the Public Sector Open Data (PSOD) Group, which looks to leverage the collective work of the City and the province, and to help other municipalities launch their own programs. Other PSOD members include Waterloo, Niagara, York Region, Peel Region, Mississauga, London, Windsor, Niagara Falls, and Guelph, as well as the universities of Waterloo and Toronto, and MaRS.

The team also keeps in touch with colleagues in other cities, including New York City.

Still, communication alone isn’t a substitute for the NYC model, with its dedicated funding and the backing of a powerful and tech-savvy mayor. And resources aside, it can be difficult to get large organizations to embrace the sea change that is open data. Garner says, “Opening up involves a culture shift for most governments. Most of the reluctance is around fears about not being able to maintain the integrity of the data, keeping it accurate and intact…safe from harm. It takes time to increase the comfort level with letting go of and sharing data ‘for good.’ ”

So, how do we get from what is essentially a pilot project to a full-blown—and fully funded—program?

As the utility of open data becomes increasingly evident, the need to educate will diminish, and with luck some future, less belt-tightened city council will allocate more resources to the program. In the meantime, Toronto’s open-data initiative continues to move forward in small steps: communicating, reformatting data sets for easier use, and continuing to work with third parties to build apps.

“To us, Open Data Toronto is a good news story,” Garner says. We agree.