Open Data in BC – Good & Bad Examples from Bikes to Libraries

Some small examples of open data use and public servants who do and don’t understand open data from the Province of British Columbia to the City of Vancouver.

Open Libraries?

For the past several years – ever since the open motion was passed in Vancouver – the city has been releasing more and more data sets. One data set I’ve encouraged them to proactively release was library data – the catalog, what books were popular, etc… Others have made the request and, in fact, some of the catalog data is available, if you know where to look – but it isn’t licensed. This hasn’t stopped people from creating cool things – like this awesome Firefox greasemonkey script that shows if a book you are looking at on Amazon’s site is available at your local VPL library – but it has driven these innovations underground, discouraged them, and made them difficult to maintain.

I’ve even had meetings with Vancouver Public Library (VPL) officials who ranged from deeply opposed to indifferent about sharing their data, usually on the grounds of privacy and security. How releasing the libraries catalog, or offering an API into the catalog or showing the number of times a book has been checked out threatens privacy is beyond me. Mostly I suspect it is driven by the fact that they don’t want anything competing with their website and software – pretty much the opposite approach to innovation than that taken by the leading cities and governments.

The reluctance of VPL to share its data given they are a) a community supported library and b) that City Council passed a motion explicitly directing city staff to make their data open, is all the more surprising (I mean even ICBC gave me bike accident data). This is why I was excited to see that the Provincial Government of British Columbian has taken the opposite view. Recently they released location and statistic for Public Libraries across BC for 2006-2009. It does not sadly, include the collections data or the number of check outs for each book (which would of course be awesome but it does provide lat/longs for every library and a great deal of data on each library system and sometimes individual branch such as staff levels, budget data and usage counts (again not by resource). It’s a good start and something I hope people will want to play with. Of course, getting an API into the actual catalog is the real idea – the things my friends talk about doing to enable them and their kids to better use the library…

Speaking of playing…

Bike Accident Data Keeps Generating Discussion

It is wonderful to see that blog posts and analysis as a result of Eric Promislow’s BC bike accident map continue to emerge. Eric created his map during the December 3rd Open Data Hackathon when he visualized bike accident data I managed to get from Insurance Company of British Columbia and uploaded it to Buzzdata. (Eric subsequently got automobile accident data and mapped that too). Another example appeared last week, when the map and data proved useful to Stephen Wehner who used it in a recent blog post to supplement some anecdotal data around accidents in his neighborhood.

It’s a wonderful example of how local citizens can begin to see the risks and problems in their neighborhoods, and arm themselves with real data when they want to complain to their councilperson, MLA, MP or other representative.

2 thoughts on “Open Data in BC – Good & Bad Examples from Bikes to Libraries

  1. BC librarian

    Dave, I’m pretty sure the real reason for not opening up a catalogue API is: the technology doesn’t exist. Libraries mostly get their catalogues from a small number of commercial vendors, and the software is poorly designed, antiquated, and over-priced. It’s also proprietary, so the library can’t try to hack its own API.  I don’t know the real story at VPL, but my guess is that either (a) the vendor doesn’t offer an API that would do what you describe, or (b) they do have one and VPL would have to pay $50k to use it. Trust me, librarians “get” open data … it’s just that we’re prisoners of crappy software.

    I should mention that more than 50 public libraries around BC now use an open source catalogue called Sitka, hosted by a cooperative they’ve built. Here’s a list of those libraries:  If anybody can open up an API the way you want, it would be these folk.

  2. Pingback: The Time for Libraries is Now — an intermittent record

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