Tag Archives: vancouver city hall

Open Data Day 2013 in Vancouver

Better late than never, I’m going to do a few posts this week recapping a number of ideas and thoughts from Open Data Day 2013. As is most appropriate, I’m going to start the week with a recap of Vancouver – the Open Data Day event I attended and helped organize along with my friend Luke Closs and the very helpful and supportive staff at the City of Vancouver – in particular Linda Low and Kevin Bowers. I’ve got further thoughts about the day in general, its impact and some other ideas I’ll share in subsequent posts.

Vancouver! 2013!

What made Open Data Day in Vancouver great for me was that we had a range of things happen that really balanced time between “creating” (e.g. hacking) and engagement. As a result I’m diving this blog post into three parts: setting the scene, engagement and outcomes as well as sharing some lessons and best practices. My hope is that the post will make for fun reading for regular readers, but the lessons will prove helpful to future open data day organizers and/or plain old hackathon organizers.

Setting the scene

City hall photo by Roland

Despite competing with a somewhat rare sunny day in Vancouver at this time of year we had over 80 participants show up at City Hall, who graciously agreed to host the room. Backgrounds varied – we had environmentalists, college and university students, GIS types, open street mappers, journalists, statisticians among others. In addition, the city’s administration made a big commitment to be on hand. Over 20 staff were present, including one of the Deputy City Managers and a councillor – Andrea Reimer – who has been most active and supportive on the Open Data file. In addition we had a surprise guest – Federal Minister Tony Clement, who is the minister responsible for Open Data with the national government.

Our event was fairly loosely organized. We had a general agenda but didn’t over script anything. While Luke and I are comfortable with relatively flexible agenda for the day, we knew the unstructured nature of the event was a departure for some from the city and were grateful that they trusted us both with the format and with the fast, loose and informal way we sought to run the day.

Here are some high level lessons:

  • When Possible host it Somewhere Meaningful. City Hall is always nice. Many attendees will have never engaged with local government before, this creates a space for them to learn and care about municipal government. It also reaffirms the broader culture changing and social/change oriented goals of an open data hackathon. Besides, who isn’t welcome at City Hall? It sets a great tone about who can come – which is pretty much anyone.
  • Give the Politicians Some Room. Don’t be afraid to celebrate politicians and leaders who have championed the cause. Hackathons are about experimenting, not talking, so Andrea’s five minute talk at the beginning was the right mix of sincere engagement, enthusiasm and length.
  • Don’t Only Attract Software Developers. Vancouver’s event was in part a success because of the diversity of participants. As you’ll see below, there are stories that emerged because we tried hard to engage non-software developers as well.
  • Transit. This may sound obvious but… if you want to attract lots of people make it convenient to get to. We right off the subway line – City Hall is pretty central.
  • RSVP. We did one thing wrong and one thing right. On the wrong side, we should have allowed more people to register recognizing that not everyone would show. We’d turned people away and ended up having room for them because of the no shows. On the right side, we blasted our list to see if anyone wasn’t going to come at the last minute and, got some responses, which allowed us to re-allocate those seats.

Engagement: Open Dataing

Speed Dating with Minister Clement

The one thing both Luke and I were committed to doing was getting participants and city staff to talk to one another. Building off an idea Luke witnessed in Ottawa we did 45 minutes of Open “Dataing.” During this period city staff from about eight different departments, as well as Minister Clement, staked out a part of the room. We then had people cluster – in groups of about 5-7 – around a department whose data or mission was of interest to them. They then had 10 minutes to learn about what data was available, ask questions about data they’d like, projects they were thinking of working on, or learn more about the operations of the city. In essence, they got to have a 10 minute speed date on data with a city official.

After 10 minutes blew a whistle and people went and clustered around a new official and did it all over again.  It was a blast.

Key Lessons:

  • Open Dataing is about getting everyone engaged. Helping public servants see what citizens are interested in and how they can see technology working for them, it’s also about getting participants to learn about what is available, what’s possible, and what are some of the real constraints faced by city staff
  • I wish we’d had signs for the various departments being represented, would have made it easier for people to find and gravitate towards the issues that mattered most to them.
  • This type of activity is great early on, it’s a way to get people talking and sharing ideas. In addition, we did the whole thing standing, that way no one could get too comfortable and it ensure that things kept flowing.

Outcomes

After the dating, we did a brief run through of projects people wanted to work on and basically stepped back and hacked. So what got worked on? There were other projects that were worked on, but here are the ones that saw presentations at the end of the day. There are some real gems.

Bike Parking App 

The Bike Rack app came out of some challenges about data gathering that Councillor Reimer shared with me. I suggested the project and a team of students from UBC’s Magic Lab turned it into something real.

The city recently released a data set of the locations of all city owned bike racks. However, the city has little data about if these locations are useful. So the app that got hacked is very simple. When you arrive at your destination on bike you load it up and it searches for the nearest bike rack. For the user, this can be helpful. However, the app would also track that lat/long of where the search was conducted. This would let city planners know where people are when looking for bike rack so they would start to have some data about underserved locations. Very helpful. In addition, the app could have a crowdsourced function for marking the location of private bike racks (managed by businesses) as well as an option to lat/long where and when your bike was stolen. All this data could be used to help promote cycling, as well as help the city serve cyclists more effectively.

Homelessness Dashboard

Luke showing off his rental dashboard

My friend Luke connected a Raspberry Pi device to one of the giant TVs in the room where we were working to share the work he had done to create a dashboard based on the city’s rental standards database.  Luke’s work even got featured on the Atlantic’s website.

Crime mapping – lots of quality questions

One great project involved no software at all. We had some real data crunchers in attendance and they started diving into the Vancouver Police Department’s data with a critical eye. I wish the VPD could have been there since their conclusions were not pretty. The truth is, the Vancouver Police department makes very little data open, and what it does make, is not very good. What was great to see were some very experienced statisticians explain why. I hope to be able to share the deck they created.

Air quality egg

A few weeks prior to Open Data Day I shared that I’d be launching a project – with the help of the Centre for Digital Media – around measuring air quality in Vancouver. Well, the air quality egg we’d ordered arrived and our team started exploring what it would, and might not, allow us to do. The results were very exciting. Open Data Day basically gave us time to determine that the technical hurdles we were worried about are surmountable – so we will be moving forward.

Over the coming months we’ll be crafting a website that uses Air Quality Eggs to measure the air quality in various neighborhoods in Vancouver. We have a number of other community partners that are hoping on board. By Clean Air Day  we’d love to have 50-100 air quality eggs scattered across various neighborhoods in greater Vancouver. If you are interested in sponsoring one (they are about $150) please contact me.

Youth Oriented events RSS feed

One intrepid participant, also not a developer, got the city to agree to create and share an RSS feed of youth oriented events. This was important to them as they were concerned with youth issues – so a great example of a community organizer getting a data resource from the city. Next steps – trying to get other organizations with youth organized events to agree to share their program data in a similar data schema. What a great project.

Provincial Crowdsourced Road Kills and Poaching Maps

I was very excited to have to participants from the David Suzuki Foundation at the hackathon. They worked on creating some maps that would allow people to crowdsource map road kills, and instances of poaching, across the province of British Columbia. I love that they had a chance to explore the technical side of this problem, particularly as they may be well placed to resolve the community building side that would be essential to making a project like this a success.

Neighbourhood quality Heat Maps

Another team took various data sets from the Vancouver Open Data portal to generate heat maps of data quality (proximity to certain services and other variables). This prompted a robust conversation about the methodologies used to assess quality as well as how to account for services vs. population density. Exactly the types of conversations we want to foster!

Figuring our how to translate all of the data.vancouver.ca datasets

Another participant  Jim DeLaHunt - put in some infrastructure that would make it easier to translate Vancouver’s open data into multiple languages in order to make it more accessible. He spent the day trying to identify what data in which data sets was structured versus unstructured human readable text. And… much to his credit he created a wiki page, the  Vancouver Open Data language census to update people on his work so far.

Live Bus Data Mapped

Transit mapping

Another team played with the local transit authority’s real time bus data location API. It was pretty cool to see the dots moving across a google map in real time.

Their goals were mostly just to experiment, play and learn, but I know that apps like this have been sold into coffee shops in Boston, where they let customers know how far away the next bus.

Open Street Map

A Open Street Mapper participant spent the data getting address data merged with OSM.

Key Lessons:

  • Don’t try to over manage the event – give people space and time to create
  • Even if the energy feels low after a long day – definitely share out what people worked on, even if they didn’t finish what they wanted. There is lots to be learned from what others are doing and many new ideas get generated. It was also great for city staff to see what is possible
  • Get people to share github repos and other links while on site. Too many of the above projects lack links!

Thank you again for everyone who made Open Data Day in Vancouver a success! Looking forward to next year!

Vancouver enters the age of the open city

A few hours ago, Vancouver’s city government posted the agenda to a council meeting next week in which this motion will be read:

MOTION ON NOTICE

Open Data, Open Standards and Open Source
MOVER: Councillor Andrea Reimer
SECONDER: Councillor

WHEREAS the City of Vancouver is committed to bringing the community into City Hall by engaging citizens, and soliciting their ideas, input and creative energy;

WHEREAS municipalities across Canada have an opportunity to dramatically lower their costs by collectively sharing and supporting software they use and create;

WHEREAS the total value of public data is maximized when provided for free or where necessary only a minimal cost of distribution;

WHEREAS when data is shared freely, citizens are enabled to use and re-purpose it to help create a more economically vibrant and environmentally sustainable city;

WHEREAS Vancouver needs to look for opportunities for creating economic activity and partnership with the creative tech sector;

WHEREAS the adoption of open standards improves transparency, access to city information by citizens and businesses and improved coordination and efficiencies across municipal boundaries and with federal and provincial partners;

WHEREAS the Integrated Cadastral Information Society (ICIS) is a not-for-profit society created as a partnership between local government, provincial government and major utility companies in British Columbia to share and integrate spatial data to which 94% of BC local governments are members but Vancouver is not;

WHEREAS digital innovation can enhance citizen communications, support the brand of the city as creative and innovative, improve service delivery, support citizens to self-organize and solve their own problems, and create a stronger sense of civic engagement, community, and pride;

WHEREAS the City of Vancouver has incredible resources of data and information, and has recently been awarded the Best City Archive of the World.

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED THAT the City of Vancouver endorses the principles of:

  • Open and Accessible Data – the City of Vancouver will freely share with citizens, businesses and other jurisdictions the greatest amount of data possible while respecting privacy and security concerns;
  • Open Standards – the City of Vancouver will move as quickly as possible to adopt prevailing open standards for data, documents, maps, and other formats of media;
  • Open Source Software – the City of Vancouver, when replacing existing software or considering new applications, will place open source software on an equal footing with commercial systems during procurement cycles; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT in pursuit of open data the City of Vancouver will:

  • Identify immediate opportunities to distribute more of its data;
  • Index, publish and syndicate its data to the internet using prevailing open standards, interfaces and formats;
  • Develop appropriate agreements to share its data with the Integrated Cadastral Information Society (ICIS) and encourage the ICIS to in turn share its data with the public at large
  • Develop a plan to digitize and freely distribute suitable archival data to the public;
  • Ensure that data supplied to the City by third parties (developers, contractors, consultants) are unlicensed, in a prevailing open standard format, and not copyrighted except if otherwise prevented by legal considerations;
  • License any software applications developed by the City of Vancouver such that they may be used by other municipalities, businesses, and the public without restriction.

BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED THAT the City Manager be tasked with developing an action plan for implementation of the above.

A number of us having been working hard getting this motion into place. While several cities, like Portland, Washington DC, and Toronto, have pursued some of the ideas outlined in this motion, none have codified or been as comprehensive and explicit in their intention.

I certainly see this motion as the cornerstone to transforming Vancouver into a open city, or as my friend Surman puts it, a city that thinks like the web.

At a high level, the goal behind this motion is to enable citizens to create, grow and control the virtual manifestation of their city so that they can in turn better influence the real physical city.

In practice, I believe this motion will foster several outcomes, including:

1. New services and applications: That as data is opened up, shared and has  APIs published for it, our citizen coders will create web based applications that will make their lives – and the lives of other citizens – easier, more efficient, and more pleasant.

2. Tapping into the long tail of public policy analysis: As more and more Vancouverites look over the city’s data, maps and other pieces of information citizens will notice inefficiencies, problems and other issues that could save money, improve services and generally make for a stronger better city.

3. Create new businesses and attract talent: As the city shares more data and uses more open source software new businesses that create services out of this data and that support this software will spring up. More generally, I think this motion, over time could attract talent to Vancouver. Paul Graham once said that great programmers want great tools and interesting challenges. We are giving them both. The challenge of improving the community in which they live and the tools and data to help make it better.

For those interested in appearing before City Council to support this motion, details can be found here. The council meeting is this Tuesday, May 19th at 2pm, PST. You can also watch the proceedings live.

For those interested in writing a letter in support of the motion, send your letter here.

If a tree falls in the forest…

If a debate happens in city council, and nobody is around to report on it, does it have an impact?

Last Thursday I noticed that the Toronto edition of the National Post had front page coverage of Toronto’s city council meeting.

Front Page – with a giant picture to boot!

I’m trying to remember the last time a council issue was the lead cover story in the Vancouver Sun… How about the last time there was a photo of a council meeting?

Sadly – from what I can tell – neither The Sun, nor The Province, nor anyone else, have a single reporter exclusively dedicated to Vancouver city hall and municipal politics (if I’m wrong about this please send me a note – who is it?). This is akin to the Globe or National Post failing to assign someone to cover Parliament Hill. Vaughn Palmer does an excellent job covering the BC legislature for The Sun – so why not have someone do the same for municipal politics?

The lack of coverage fosters a city whose political and policy ideas are often unheard and poorly debated, whose municipal scandals go unquestioned and unpublicized and whose council members and mayor go unscrutinized.

Maybe The Sun may feel it simply isn’t profitable to have such a column. I understand (although doubt it). But this function is so important, some solution must be found. Maybe the Vancouver Foundation or some other agency could endow a reporter to cover the City Hall beat.

Or maybe… the Sun should consider outsourcing the role.

Sounds crazy? Admittedly it’s hardly ideal. But a news website in Pasadena, California, recently hired an Indian journalist to cover local politics. The journalist can watch local council meetings over the internet (the same could be done in Vancouver), many documents are available through the city’s website (as they are in Vancouver), and as the editor of the news web site noted “Whether you’re at a desk in Pasadena or a desk in Mumbai, you’re still just a phone call or e-mail away from the interview.” It’s not my favoured solution, but it is better than nothing.

Vancouverites often claim they’re not jealous of Toronto, but maybe we should be. With the Globe, the National Post and the Toronto Star writing regularly about the city’s politics I know I’m feeling envious.

Addition 11:20am PST – David Beers, editor of The Tyee, has emailed me to say: “Was surprised to see you single us out as one who is stingy on coverage of Vancouver city hall. In fact we do have one reporter who has been dogging the issue of homeless housing, covering city council sessions and often the byline on a cover story. Check out Monte Paulsen’s work.”

It is true, the Tyee has more in depth coverage of city hall than anybody else in town… all to glad to be called out on the oversight and hope readers will check out Paulsen’s work. Also, to be fair, the Georgia Straigt does a review of city councilors and talks about municipal politics, but it doesn’t have consistent reporting on the subject.