Civic Tech: Hackers! To Your Stations!

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Civic Tech: Hackers! To Your Stations!

For those who care about data, the City’s new Open Data Master Plan is about to change everything.

Photo by Stephanie Lake, courtesy of Civic Tech Toronto.

One Saturday afternoon earlier this month, more than 100 people gathered at the Toronto Public Library for an annual gathering called CodeAcross, the city’s annual open data and civic tech event. This year, the theme was the Future of Work. One of the challenges centred on the City of Toronto’s freshly approved Open Data Master Plan. A team of residents and civil servants from all three levels of government worked together for the day, hashing out how best to make use of the coming flood of data. Now that Toronto has its official Open Data Master Plan, this kind of work should be an ongoing effort.

Even those who weren’t in the group working on the open-data master plan were talking about it. Among a certain type of wonky person, the plan is a big deal: open data in a closed culture. People passionate about dull data. How did that happen?

Well, a number of things have come together. People have gotten used to the concept of open data. A number of activists have pushed the idea, and a deep bench of City staff came together to work on it. The mayor is supportive—it’s one of the embers he’s been scattering about City Hall in the hope of starting a fire of innovation. And there’s a tailwind—open data has become hip, nationally and internationally—and Toronto doesn’t want to be left behind.

So here we are. In January, a formal, substantial, potentially pervasive Open Data Master Plan was passed at Executive Committee. It then received full Council approval in February, giving it the weight of a funded, long term City program. This represents a real sea change in the way that City Hall handles and makes available its data.

Here’s what you need to know about the plan:

First, the plan is ambitious. “We envision a future where we enable anyone, anywhere, to improve life in Toronto with open data,” it reads. The emphasis here is on leveraging energy and investment way beyond City government resources. The goals are broad: to impact civic issues, incubate business, and engage as many residents as possible. It even makes gestures toward the idea of open government, which is a new and modern way of looking at government as a hub open to everyone.

To bring the point home, it includes as a guiding principle the idea of open by default, as consistent with international standards. That means all City of Toronto data is going to be open, unless there’s a specific and credible reason to withhold it.

Second, the plan is serious. Far from platitudes, the writers have done their homework. The result is creation of detailed data development plans clustered around the full range of management actions required to make the plan work. These actions include negotiating with internal sources to upgrade their systems to automate publishing, working with stakeholders to focus on user priorities, and continually channelling specific feedback about usability to the people responsible for producing and publishing the data. It’s a formidable, comprehensive, realistic management plan. See the document itself for details. They’re not kidding around. It’s one of the best City implementation plans I’ve seen.

Third, the plan is supported by some of the city’s best data professionals. The main focus of the plan is a new Toronto open data portal (toronto.ca/open). This will be a demanding site—the beta is about to be released, but has been shown in preview. At its core, it includes sophisticated methods of managing data repositories, updating content on an ongoing basis, notifying users about those updates, and the capacity to both scale up and maintain the site’s ongoing functionality. In addition, the site will not only provide data files, but also API’s (application programmer interfaces) for automated downloads, and even on-site interactive mapping and visualization tools to allow users of varying backgrounds to give data a test drive.

Most excitingly, the crew has developed a notion of “data stories” to make the data that much more meaningful by accompanying it with narratives, technical and subject references, code views, and more. This is all challenging, leading edge stuff. From what I can see, the City’s open data crew is not only embracing all this, but thriving. They’re real nerds; a good thing in that space.

But so what? Open data is a rare window into the workings of City Hall. Plus, depending on the data, it’s a window into what happens in the broader city. It’s even a window into the people of the city. It can be Big Data—remember all those sensors that are raining down on Toronto and other cities, including data from automated cars, cameras, and so much more—and Little Data, like my favourite, budget and accounting data.

High-quality data in the right hands can be used for all kinds of analytic outcomes. There’s even a field called predictive analytics, which can anticipate where resources are needed, and prescriptive analytics, where you can get good guidance on what to do about problems before they hit. Lots to talk about here, but there’s one key point: if the City doesn’t do it, private enterprise will have the space all to itself. Then what? Far better to have an even playing field balanced by public data fairly and professionally prepared and managed.

The challenge, now that we have a competent plan, is going to be to make it happen for real. And that’s up to all of us, like the CodeAcross folks. An open data plan is only as good as the data it gets, and as good as the insights and applications developed from that data. That’s up to us. You, and me. So keep an eye on it. Go look at toronto.ca/open, and take it out for a drive once in a while.

Henrik Bechmann is a sort-of-retired software developer, and the founder and lead of the budgetpedia.ca project.

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