Vancouver’s open data holds potential to empower citizens
It’s been a year since the City of Vancouver launched its open-data catalogue last September. Now that the foundation has been laid to make information about the city more accessible on-line, it’s time to make open data relevant for ordinary people, according to Vision Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer.
“We’ve gotten through the hurdle of a lack of imagination and impossibility, and we’re into that zone of possibility and imagination,” Reimer told the Georgia Straight over a veggie burger in the City Hall cafeteria. “The bigger challenge is the tangibleness of this for citizens as a whole.”
She’s got a point: it can be hard for the not-so-tech-savvy to get on board with an idea when the specific benefits aren’t immediately visible. For governments, open-data policies aim to make information publicly available on-line in standard formats so citizens can access, remix, and mash it up for a variety of purposes. Vancouver’s catalogue now includes more than 100 data sets, which contain information on everything from bikeways and public art to school catchment area boundaries.
The most tangible outcomes of Vancouver’s release of open data are applications like VanTrash, a garbage-collection reminder service. But the implications are much broader. Open data can lead to new forms of citizen-government collaboration. Supporters, which run the gamut from technologists to activists, say it has the potential to improve democracy by empowering citizens and making governments more accountable.
But for governments, relinquishing control of information—even if they want to benefit the public they serve—is daunting.
“We didn’t build libraries when everybody could read. We built libraries when the vast majority of people didn’t know how to read,” David Eaves, a Vision Vancouver executive who advises Mayor Gregor Robertson on open data, told the Straight in an interview at a coffee shop near City Hall. “We built them because we knew they had to be part of a project to create a more literate society”¦a literate society would better service democracy and be more economically vibrant and better-off. I think the same is true of data.”
Until the city launched its open-data catalogue last year—four months after council approved Reimer’s motion in support of open principles—its Web site lacked the infrastructure to make information already available to the public more accessible.
City council motions and staff reports are posted on-line as PDFs. They’re available for public download, but the format’s limited search capacity makes it difficult to find specific information on the site.
“There’s no content management system, so nothing’s tagged,” Reimer said. “This is so 1997, right?”
The city has made considerable progress over the past year in getting staff to support a concept—giving away data—that can seem risky for any business. This is most apparent in the open-data catalogue itself, which is updated regularly with a steady stream of new data. Recent additions include new information on the city’s street-food vender program and drinking fountains.
Shari Wallace, director of information technology strategy, business relationships, and projects for the city, oversees Vancouver’s open-data project.
With regards to the future of open data and the city, Wallace has two concerns. The first is risk management.
“From a city’s perspective or a government’s perspective, we’re always going to be worried about how that data is going to be used,” she told the Straight in an interview at her office across the street from City Hall. “If it’s used for criminal intent, for example, what risk are we taking, and could that risk ultimately have to be absorbed by the city?”
Wallace argued that, though open-data supporters might say it shouldn’t matter what happens to the data, the reality is that the city must care. “How do we strike a balance between the open-data community and the risk-management framework that government needs to manage?” she asked. “We don’t have an answer.”
The other issue, of course, is the cost. “This doesn’t come free,” Wallace said.
The city has allocated $1.76 million of the 2010 capital budget to create a content management system for city-funded Web sites. According to a March staff report on the capital budget, this will provide a reliable platform for users to access city information, participate in democratic processes, and fulfill commercial and service transactions.
Another $242,000 went to open-source strategy, which encompasses efforts on open data, open standards, and open-source software. The strategy includes staff developing a decision-making framework for evaluating what data to make public, and for assessing and potentially purchasing open-source products.
“They [open-data advocates] will say the taxpayers pay [for data] already”¦and they’re right,” Wallace said. “But making it available—back to the public in a way they can use—costs money.”
The culture of free sharing that’s central to the open-data community can pose challenges for governments, according to Sarah Schacht. She’s the founder of the Seattle-based Open Gov West, a network of open-government supporters in the western United States and Canada.
Typical government policy, Schacht said, doesn’t allow for collaboration with nontraditional partners, nor does it allow IT departments to use free services.
“Most governments can’t absorb a group of highly talented, technically skilled citizens who are offering up their services for free,” she told the Straight during a visit to Vancouver. “Governments don’t really have the rule-making to absorb that kind of talent.”
Still, governments aren’t intentionally blocking open-data strategies—it’s just that they’re faced with complex challenges common to many organizations, Schacht stressed.
One barrier to opening up information is the fact that most government documentation exists in a format that isn’t machine-readable. Hence the frustration of searching for information in Vancouver’s council meeting minutes.
“The solution is in creating a simple, shared software amongst governments that’s open-source and allows clerical staff to easily and quickly have the documents automatically tagged in XML [Extensible Markup Language],” Schacht said. “I don’t think any solution in opening up government can be really created unless it is simple, elegant, and cost-effective for governments to implement.”
If the growing membership of Open Gov West is any indication of interest in open data, the future looks bright. Vancouver, Victoria, and Edmonton fill out the Canadian contingent of the one-year-old, eight-city network, and interest in it and other open-government initiatives continues to increase.
Elsewhere in B.C., the City of Nanaimo launched its open-data catalogue in June 2009, beating Vancouver by three months. The B.C. government has also taken steps to embrace open data. The province sponsored Seattle’s Open Gov West conference in March, and will announce on Thursday (September 16) the results of its Apps for Climate Action contest.
“B.C.’s kind of a hotbed for this stuff right now,” David Hume told the Straight by phone from his Victoria office. Hume is the executive director of citizen engagement for the provincial government and a passionate supporter of open standards for government.
“We’re going to have some really significant demographic shifts coming our way,” Hume said. “We know that policy issues are increasingly complex, and we know that the public has a lot of ideas on how to take on these challenges.”
Stronger, more meaningful collaboration between government and citizens will be key to creating and implementing successful new policies, according to him.
“It gets people—diverse minds, unique minds—engaged in helping solve these problems,” Hume said. “It builds their civic literacy.”