Posts / February 18, 2011

Saskatoon Needs Open Data

David Hutton wrote a great article in this week’s Star Phoenix on why Saskatoon needs to adopt an ‘open-data’ approach. I had the pleasure of giving my feedback why open data is not only important, but also makes sense from an economic perspective.

University of Saskatchewan instructor Chad Jones knows first-hand the power of freeing information locked away in government cabinets and databases.

For a class project, a student in Jones’s iPhone programming class set out to create a mobile application that would tell you when your bus is coming using Saskatoon’s transit scheduling data.

It took days of tedious conversion to get the information in a useful format -and even then the student was only able to map a single route.

In the same class, another student used data that was readily available from Calgary and was able to write a bare-bones app that covered the entire city.

The first students’ ordeal would have been avoided if Saskatoon had an “open-data” policy similar to one a growing number of North American cities are adopting, Jones says.

“There are a lot of creative individuals who want to do this kind of thing and right now it’s very hard,” Jones said. “By not making the data available in a format that’s honestly usable, it’s delaying possible innovation.”

Such a policy would make certain sets of city data available in a format that makes it possible for computer programmers or the public to use them, without copyright restrictions or other controls on its use.

Dozens of Canadian cities already share on open data websites information ranging from crime statistics to transit and traffic information to the locations of public parks, artwork or washrooms, homeless shelters and sewer manholes.

Edmonton, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver -known as Canada’s G4 of open data -are working on creating common standards for their terms of use and data catalogues and most of their city councils have entrenched a commitment to open data by passing resolutions.

Advocates say open data policies can spawn useful websites and mobile applications -anything from automatic garbage-day email reminders, bus-tracking information and maps that show the location, ice quality, and hours of outdoor hockey rinks.

“I see great opportunity,” said Eric Neufeld, the head of the U of S computer science department. “There’s a lot of potential for community building.”

In Saskatoon, almost all of the city’s key information, including council and committee agendas and annual budgets, for instance, are only available as large PDFs -the Internet equivalent of a brick.

City officials are reviewing their outdated website and getting video of council meetings streaming live online before delving into open data, said Mike Jordan, the city’s intergovernmental affairs manager.

The city would need to examine the scope of information it can legally provide given privacy and security restrictions, he said, but would “try to be as open as possible respecting privacy legislation.

“Some of these technology things move a little quicker if you have critical mass,” Jordan said. “We are incrementally catching up with larger centres. There’s a trickle-down effect that starts where there’s a population mass and we’re starting to see we need to get in the game, too.”

Opening up information can also increase government transparency and engage the public. In Toronto, campaign finance filings and council voting and attendance records are a click away.

By releasing data in easy-to-use formats, developers will create sites or applications that are packaged and customized in ways city hall never would have considered, said Dale Zak, a local software developer.

The 30-year-old Zak has become somewhat of a social media leader in Saskatoon, organizing a hackathon for local programmers to write as many apps as possible over a weekend with proceeds going to charity.

It’s one thing for data to be public or available via access to information, but it also needs to be usable, he said.

There’s also an economic argument. With easy access to the city’s large data sets, developers could make money selling smartphone applications, he said.

Many cities have held competitions with prizes of up to $50,000 for the developer who comes up with the best application.

“The idea of a competition would be really successful,” Zak said.

“Throw out $50 or $5,000 . . . you’re going to get multiple value returned on that investment.

“Cities are getting the work for free . . . you open up the data and anyone can build on top of it.”

An App For That

Mobile applications that have been spawned by datasets made available by governments:

Rinkside Ottawa: Ottawa-based app for smartphones finds the closest outdoor rink and the quality of the ice.

Where’s my Streetcar? Toronto iPhone app that quickly tells users when the next few streetcars will arrive at their stop.

Transit To Go: Halifax iPhone app gives users all the next buses arriving at their stop.

VanTrash: Using the City of Vancouver’s garbage collection data, users can download collection calendars and get email alerts to remind them about pickup.

Stumble Safely: Washington D.C. app correlates crime, liquor licence and traffic data and calculates the safest way to walk home when drunk.

Fly on Time: Popular U.S. app and website shows how often a flight arrives on time using data from federal government.