Monday, April 19, 2010

Ottawa City Hall: Let Me Be Open

Back on March 1, there was a report presented to the City of Ottawa's little-known Information Technology Sub-Committee of the Corporate Services and Economic Development Committee about Open Data. It made its way up to Council before being referred back to ITS, who will be discussing it tomorrow (Monday) afternoon.

It's important that Council pass this policy, but what does it mean?

Nowadays, when you visit a website, what's really happening is a machine (specifically a webserver) is looking up entries in a database, then plugging the results into a template that makes it nice for you to look at.

Case in point, this blog is stored in a database on Google's servers, and it could be presented in a variety of ways. That's how how I could change the look and feel of my blog without having to republish every single entry. It's also you can pull the RSS feed of my blog in order to read it in a format that is more suited to your viewing habits (especially convenient because I don't publish on a regular basis).

Blogs are one form of data, but our governments also produce a vast amount of data. As a simple example, bus schedules. Ten years ago, if you wanted to know when the next bus was supposed to come, you could either check out the schedule posted at the bus stop or you could find a printed schedule, which would tell you when the bus was to come to the nearest timepoint.

Nowadays, OC Transpo's website can look up the schedule for the exact place you want to get on the bus and tell you when it is supposed to arrive.

But the databases that store this information are locked up with OC Transpo. If you wanted to create a more convenient interface, like Craig Davey did, you'd have to file a freedom of information requestto access that data.

Not so with an Open Data policy. While machine-readable datasets may not be the sexiest topic, the ability to mash them up and interpret them in the context of other datasets is invaluable is a tremendous power.

This five-and-a-half minute talk by Tim Berners-Lee (the man who created the World Wide Web) gives some examples of how open data can be useful. In one case, a map of water main access overlaid on a map of the race of residents showed clearly that only white people had clean water in an Ohio neighbourhood.

Closer to home, there is a website called, which parses the Hansard transcript and allows you to browse by MP, by topic, and in other ways. David Eaves, who created the website, also created, which publishes a list of known Government of Canada datasets.

Berners-Lee is part of an Open Data movement that is pushing governments and institutions at all levels to release their data, not only for the media to be able to correlate the previously uncorrelatable, but also so that enterprising individuals can make that data useful for the public, as with the site.

As a second example of what you can do with these types of datasets, here is Gary Flake with a TED presentation about Microsoft Pivot, which allows useful browsing not only of demographic data, but even more tangible information like Time Magazine covers:

One of the areas of contention at Ottawa City Hall was that it would cost the City a certain amount of money (a couple hundred thousand dollars at the most) to release this data, so why not charge companies like Google and Microsoft when they want to use it?

This, unfortunately, shuts out people like Davey and Eaves--regular citizens with a bit of programming skill who want to make existing information more useful and more accessible to people.

I have little doubt that the programs created by individuals using open data from the City of Ottawa would bring a substantial return on the meagre investment required for the City to publish that information in the first place. Far more useful than if the City put that money into creating those resources itself.

And if there's any better example for the need for this type of service, the agenda for tomorrow's meeting would have been posted to the City's website a week earlier. But I only heard about it on Friday afternoon in the City's "meetings next week" e-mail. If Council and Committee agendas and minutes were released as part of an Open Data policy, I would have written this post a week before the meeting, instead of the night before.

- RG>

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