Open Cities – A Success…

Finally beginning to relax after a hectic week of speeches, work and helping out with the Open Cities unconference.

Open Cities was dynamite – it attracted an interesting cross section of people from the arts, publishing, IT, non-profit and policy sectors (to name a few). This was my first unconference and so the most interesting take away was seeing how an openly conducted (un)conference – one with virtually no agenda or predetermined speakers – can work so well. Indeed, it worked better than most conferences I’ve been to. (Of course, it helps when it is being expertly facilitated by someone like Misha G.)

Here’s a picture chart of the agenda coming together mid-morning (thank you to enigmatix1 for the photos)

There was no shortage of panels convened by the participants. I know Mark K. is working on getting details from each of them up on the Open Cities wiki as quickly as possible. Hopefully these can be organized more succinctly in the near future (did I just volunteer myself?).

There were several conversation I enjoyed – hope to share more on them over the coming days – but wanted to start with the idea of helping grow the Torontopedia. The conversation was prompted by several people asking why Toronto does not have its own wiki (it does). Fortunately, Himy S. – who is creating the aforementioned Torontopedia – was on hand to share in the conversation.

A Toronto wiki – particularly one that leverages Google Maps’ functionality could provide an endless array of interesting content. Indeed the conversation about what information could be on such a wiki forked many times over. Two ideas seemed particularly interesting:

The first idea revolved around getting the city’s history up on a wiki. This seemed like an interesting starting point. Such information, geographically plotted using Google Maps, would be a treasure trove for tourists, students and interested citizens. More importantly, there is a huge base of public domain content, hidden away in the city’s archives, that could kick start such a wiki. The ramp up costs could be kept remarkably low. The software is open sourced and the servers would not be that expensive. I’m sure an army of volunteer citizens would emerge to help transfer the images, stories and other media online. Indeed I’d wage a $100,000 grant from the Trillium Foundation, in connection with the City Archives, Historica and/or the Dominion Institute, as well as some local historical societies could bring the necessary pieces together. What a small price to pay to give citizens unrestricted access to, and the opportunity to add to, they stories and history of their city.

The interesting part about such a wiki is that it wouldn’t have to be limited to historical data. Using tags, any information about the city could be submitted. As a result, the second idea for the wiki was to get development applications and proposals online so citizens can learn about how or if their neighborhoods will be changing and how they have evolved.

Over the the course of this discussion I was stunned to learn that a great deal of this information is kept hidden by what – in comparison to Vancouver at least – is a shockingly secretive City Hall. In Vancouver, development applications are searchable online and printed out on giant billboards (see photo) and posted on the relevant buildings.Development application According to one participant, Toronto has no such requirements! To learn anything about a development proposal you must first learn about it (unclear how this happens) and then go down to City Hall to look at a physical copy of the proposal (it isn’t online?). Oh, and you are forbidden to photocopy or photograph any documents. Heaven forbid people learn about how their neighbourhood might change…

Clearly a wiki won’t solve this problem in its entirety – as long as Toronto City Hall refuses to open up access to its development applications. However, collecting the combined knowledge of citizens on a given development will help get more informed and hopefully enable citizens to better participate in decisions about how their neighbourhood will evolve. It may also create pressure on Toronto City Hall to start sharing this information more freely.

To see more photo’s go to flickr and search the tags for “open cities.”

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