Planning a night out in the northwestern quadrant of Washington, D.C., is a breeze. On the Stumble Safely Web site, partygoers can see the locations of bars on a map and read Twitter messages about the action at these nightspots. The site also displays the dates, times, and locations of assaults and robberies in the area, information that barhoppers may want to consider when deciding where to hang out.
Stumble Safely is one of 47 iPhone, Facebook, and Web applications developed last year for D.C.’s first Apps for Democracy contest. The city had called on developers to make use of real-time data feeds emanating from various municipal agencies, which it releases to the public for free through an on-line catalogue.
“It’s kind of a site for bar crawlers to find a way to walk home safely,” Ian Cairns, project manager for Development Seed, the Web communications company that developed Stumble Safely, told the Georgia Straight by phone from his D.C. office. “You can’t imagine a police department ever spending time and money on that. But, at the same time, the flip side is we know and we’ve been told by the city government that the city police department is actually using that application to visualize crime in the neighbourhoods.”
According to Cairns, the site uses data from liquor licences, police reports, and the city’s road networks. He maintained that the city would never have thought to produce such an application with its own data. But since D.C. has opened up its data to the public, Cairns said, citizens are able to make applications that can improve the quality of life in the city.
Several North American cities, from New York to Calgary, are in different stages of following D.C.’s lead.
In Vancouver, Coun. Andrea Reimer expects city staff to submit a report to council early this fall regarding the implementation of the city’s support for open data, open standards, and open-source software. In May, council approved her motion to endorse these principles and make more of the city’s data freely available on the Internet.
“One of the biggest challenges is not technical but structural,” Reimer told the Straight by phone. “[The city’s] legal department has been working to make sure that there is a clear framework that enables releasing data while respecting privacy rights of individuals and groups of individuals as well. That will be a big piece to come forward.”
The City of Vancouver already publishes a lot of information on its Web site. “But the problem is that data itself cannot be accessed,” Reimer explained. “You can only access PDF visual representations of the data.”
This is where the open-standards portion of Reimer’s motion comes in. Using prevailing standard formats will make it easier for developers to work with city data. The open-source component of the motion called on the city to consider software that can be shared without restrictions.
“Open standards is really sort of the missing link and sort of the key, although it would be useless without the two other pieces,” Reimer said.
From D.C., Cairns also stressed the importance of making data available in the right formats. “The U.S. Census Bureau has this large geographic data set called TIGER,” he said. “That’s 40 gigabytes. And it was made available, but it was 40 gigabytes. So to download that and work with it would nearly cripple most PCs. Thinking about formatting and how people access the data practically is as relevant as making it available in the first place.”
Karen Quinn Fung is a master’s student at the UBC school of community and regional planning. The open-government advocate addressed Vancouver city council in support of Reimer’s motion in May. In a phone interview, Fung told the Straight that the move toward open data “means that we as citizens can start having conversations based on fact”.
“One of the things that underpins a lot of the enthusiasm that people have for the motion was just this idea that people are hoping for a chance to be able to participate in the process of the services that we get, that there’s a role for us, that we can contribute in some way when we see that the services aren’t necessarily all of what they could be for us,” Fung said.
In April, Toronto mayor David Miller announced that his city is developing a catalogue of city-generated data similar to that of D.C. The site will feature data in standard formats, will be updated regularly, and is expected to be launched this fall.
Without much fanfare, the City of Nanaimo unveiled its own open-data site in June. It cites D.C.’s data catalogue and Data.gov, an open-data initiative undertaken by the U.S. government under President Barack Obama, as inspirations.
“A better-informed community makes better choices,” Alastair Kenning, Nanaimo’s deputy city manager, told the Straight by phone.
Chris McLuckie, manager of applications for the city’s information-technology department, said in a separate phone interview that it only took staff one-and-a-half weeks to put the site together. Asked about the cost, McLuckie told the Straight, “Just time.”
Fostering an environment at city hall in which sharing information can become second nature is more than just a technical question involving data and access, according to Reimer.
“There’s also a huge culture shift that has to happen to support that happening at all,” Reimer said. And that is, she said, for citizens to keep demanding to know more.