From here to open – How the City of Toronto began Opening up

Toronto the open

For myself, the biggest buzz at ChangeCamp Toronto was that the city showed up with lots of IT staff (much of it quite senior) who were trying to better understand how they could enable others to use their data and help citizens identify and solve problems. In fact the City of Toronto ran what I believe will be seen later as the most enduring sessions in which they asked what data should they start making available immediately (as APIs).

For those not in the know, think of an API as a plug that rather than delivering electricity instead delivers access to a database.

The exciting outcome is that web designers, coders and companies can then use this data to better deliver services, coordinate activities in neighborhoods, make government more transparent, or analyze problems. For example, imagine if all the information regarding restaurants health violations were not hidden deep within a government website (in a PDF format that is not easily searchable by google) but were available on every restaurant review website? Or if road closures were available in a data stream so a google maps application could show which road were closed on any given day – and email you if they were in your neighborhood.

This is the future that cities like Toronto are moving towards. But why Toronto? How did it arrive at this place? How is it that the City of Toronto sent staff to ChangeCamp Toronto?

The emergence of open in Toronto

I’ve tried to map this evolution. I may have missed steps and encourage people to email me or post comments if I have.

evolution of open data TO

The first step was taken when people like David Crow created a forum – Barcamp – around which some of Toronto’s vibrant tech and social tech community began to organize itself. This not only brought the community together but it also enabled unconferences to gain traction as a fun and effective approach to addressing an issue.

Then, in late 2006 the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) issued an Request For Proposals (RFP) for a redesign of its website. Many in the tech community – who had no interest in doing the redesign – were horrified at the RFP. It was obvious that given the specifications the new website would not achieve its potential. A community self-organized around redesigning the RFP. Others took note and, because they cared about the TTC, wanted to also talk about simple non-website changes the TTC could make to improve services. TransitCamp was this born and – with enormous trepidation, some TTC officials showed up (all of whom should be loudly applauded). The result? The tech and social tech community in Toronto was engaged in civic matters and their activities were beginning to make it onto the city government’s radar.

Other Camps carried on through 2007 and 2008 (think OpenCities), building momentum in the city. Then, in November of 2008 – a breakthrough. The City of Toronto hosted an internal Web 2.0 conference and invited Mark Surman – executive director of the Mozilla Foundation and long time participant in the Toronto social tech space – to deliver the keynote entitled “A City that Thinks like the Web“. After the talk, the Mayor of Toronto stood up and said:

” … I’ve been emailing people about your challenges. Open data for Google Transit is coming by next June, and I don’t see what we shouldn’t open source the software Toronto creates.” He also said “I promise the City will listen” if Torontonians set up a site like

You can hear the Mayor Miller’s full response here:

In short, the Mayor promised to begin talking about opening up (and open sourcing) the city. Freeing up Ryan Merkley and the City of Toronto IT team to attend ChangeCamp

Lessons for ChangeCamp Vancouver

It remains unclear to me whether ChangeCamp is the right venue for tackling this opportunity in Vancouver.

We in Vancouver are not as far along the arc as Toronto is. We do, however, have some advantages. The map is more obvious to us and some of us have good relationships with key staff in the city. However, this process takes time. To replicate the success in Toronto, governments here on the west coast need not only be at ChangeCamp, they need to be running sessions and deeply engaged. For this to occur cultures need to be shifted, new ideas need to percolate within government institutions and agencies and relationships need to be built. All this will take time.

3 thoughts on “From here to open – How the City of Toronto began Opening up

  1. Rick Mason

    PDF is actually indexable by Google, along with a number of other document types. Go search for “filetype:pdf” to see it's index of PDF files. Unfortunately the problem is these don't rank as high in the search results. Searching for “toronto restaurant health violations” does not turn up the PDF in question, but searching for “toronto restaurant health violations filetype:pdf” does return it as the first result.

  2. david_a_eaves

    Rick – thank you for clarifying, you are absolutely correct. The bigger issue here is that the data isn't somewhere people will find it even if it is searchable. Does anyone really go to a health officers website to see if the restaurant they are going to go to has been cited? I doubt it.The few people who search for this data are likely doing it retroactively after they've been food poisoned to see if they were the only ones or to see if it is a common problem at that restaurant. It's not only that the data is hard to search for, it is not somewhere citizens will use it, like say, a restaurant review site!

  3. Jared Bachynski

    I'm so pleased to hear about how open and participatory the city of Toronto was at changecamp!At one summer job I had during college my boss and I used to joke that getting data from the government was impossible. He figured that there was someone in every government whose job was data guardian, and her incentive structure was as follows: If she gave out data that was okay to give out, nothing happened. if she gave out some data that she wasn't supposed to, she got fired. But, if she gave out no data at all, nothing happened. The data guardian's best bet was to give away no data at all, and keep sending the data seeker to different ethics boards and privacy commissioners until her butt was 100% covered or the seeker went away.I think it would be amazing if Vancouver would publish a complete data dictionary of all of its databases (to let everyone appreciate the possibilities), and commit to opening an API for each database upon request. Then it could deal with privacy and ethics issues in bulk rather than dealing with FOI requests one at a time :)

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