Category Archives: vancouver

Inferring Serial Killers with Data: A Lesson from Vancouver

For those happily not in the know, my home town of Vancouver was afflicted with a serial killer during the 80’s and 90’s who largely targeted marginalized women in the downtown eastside – the city’s (and one of the country’s) poorest neighborhoods.

The murderer – Robert Pickton – was ultimately caught in February 2002 and, in December 2007, was convicted on 6 accounts of second degree murder. He is accused of murdering an additional twenty women, and may be responsible for deaths of a number more.

Presently there is an inquiry going on in Vancouver regarding the failure of the policy to investigate and act earlier on the disappearing women. Up until now, the most dramatic part of the inquiry for me had been heart wrenching testimony from one female officer whose own efforts within the Police Department went largely ignored. But I’ve recently seen a new spat of articles that are more interesting and disturbing.

It turns out that during the late 1990s the Vancouver Policy Department actually had an expert analyzing crime data – particularly regarding the disappearing women – and his assessment was that a serial murder was at work in the city. The expert, Kim Rossmo, advised the police to issue a press release and begin to treat the case more seriously.

He was ignored.

The story is relatively short, but worth the read – it can be found here.

What’s particularly discouraging is looking back at past articles, such as this Canadian Press piece which was published in June 26th, 2001, less than a year before Pickton was caught:

Earlier that day, Hughes stood with six others outside a Vancouver courthouse and told passers-by she believes a serial killer is responsible.

Vancouver police officially reject the suggestion.

But former police officer Kim Rossmo supported it while he was a senior officer. He wanted to warn residents about the possible threat. Rossmo is now involved in a wrongful dismissal trial against the force in B.C. Supreme Court.

Last week, he testified he wanted to issue a public warning in 1998, but other officers strongly objected. The force issued a news release saying police did not believe a serial killer was behind the disappearances.

Indeed, Rossom was not just ignored, other policemen on the force actively made his life difficult. He was harassed and further data that would have helped him engage in his analysis was withheld from him. Of course a few months later the murder was caught, demonstrating that his capture might have happened much earlier, if the force had taken the potential problem seriously.

A few lessons from this:

1) Data matters. In this case, the use of data could have, literally, saved lives. Rossom’s data model is now used by other forces and has become a professor in the United States.

2) The challenge with data is as often cultural as it is technical. As with the Moneyball story, the early advocates of using data to analyze and reassess a problem are often victimized. Their approach threatens entrenched interests and, the work often is conducted by people on the margins. Rossom was the first PhD in Canada to become a police officer – I’m pretty sure that didn’t make him a popular guy. Moreover, his approach implicitly, and then explicitly suggested the police were wrong. Police forces don’t deal with errors well – but nor do many organizations or bureaucracies.

3) Finally, this case study says volumes about police forces capacity to deal with data. Indeed, some of you may remember that the other week I deconstructed the Vancouver Police Department’s misleading press release regarding its support for Bill-C30 which would dramatically increase the police’s power to monitor Canadians online. I find it ironic that the police are seeking access to more data, when they have been unable to effectively use data that they can already legal acquire (or that, frankly is open, such as the number and locations of murder/disappearance victims).

Using Open Data to Map Vancouver’s Trees

This week, in preparation for the International Open Data Hackathon on Saturday, the Vancouver Parks Board shared one neighborhood of its tree inventory database (that I’ve uploaded to Buzzdata) so that we could at least see how it might be leveraged by citizens.

What’s interesting is how valuable this data is already (and why it should be open). As it stands this data could be used by urban landscape students and architects, environmentalists, and of course academics and scientists. I could imagine this data would even be useful for analyzing something as obtuse as the impact of the tree’s Albedo effect on the city’s climate. Of course, locked away in the city’s data warehouse, none of those uses are possible.

However, as I outlined in this blog post, having lat/long data would open up some really fun possibilities that could promote civic engagement. People could adopt trees, care for them, water them, be able to report problems about a specific tree to city hall. But to do all this we need to take the city’s data and make it better – specifically, identify the latitude and longitude of each tree. In addition to helping citizens it might make the inventory more use to the city (if they chose to use it) as well as help out the other stakeholders I outlined above.

So here’s what I’ve scoped out would be ideal to do.

Goal

Create an app that would allow citizens to identify the latitude and longitude of trees that are in the inventory.

Data Background

A few things about the city’s tree inventory data. While they don’t have an actual long/lat for each individual tree, they do register trees by city address. (Again, you can look at the data yourself here.) But this means that we can narrow the number of trees down based on proximity to the user.

Process

So here is what I think we need to be able to do.

  1. Convert the addresses in the inventory into a format that can be located within Google Maps
  2. Just show the trees attached to addresses that are either near the user (on a mobile app), or near addresses that are currently visible within Google Maps (on a desktop app).
  3. Enable the user to add a lat/long to a specific tree’s identification number.

Awesome local superstar coder/punk rock star Duane Nickull whipped together a web app that would allow one to map lat/longs. So based on that, I could imagine at desktop app that allows you to map trees remotely. This obviously would not work for many trees, but it would work for a large number.

Tree-MApper-Screen-shot-11

You’ll notice in the right-hand corner, I’ve created an illustrative list of trees to choose from. Obviously, given the cross-section of the city we are looking at, it would be much longer, but if you were zoomed in all the way I could imagine it was no longer than 5-20.

I’ve also taken the city’s data and parsed it in a way that I think makes it easier for users to understand.

tree-language-parsed

This isn’t mind-blowing stuff, but helpful. I mean who knew that dbh (diameter at breast height) was an actual technical term when measuring tree diameters! I’ve also thrown in some hyperlinks (it would be nice to have images people can reference) so users can learn about the species and ideally, even see a photo to compare against.

Tree-Mapper-Screenshot-2

So, in short, you can choose a tree, locate it in Google Maps and assign a lat/long to it. In Google Maps where you can zoom even closer than ESRI, you could really pick out individual trees.

In addition to a desktop web app, I could imagine something similar for the iPhone where it locates you using the GPS, identifies what trees are likely around you, and gives you a list such as the one on the right hand side of the screenshot above, the user then picks a tree from the list that they think they’ve identified, stands next to the tree and then presses a button in the app that assigns the lat/long of where they are standing to that tree.

If you are in Vancouver Vote Open Data, Vote Vision

If you are a Vancouver resident tomorrow is election day. I’m hoping if you are a resident and a reader of this blog, you’ll consider voting for Vision Vancouver.

As many of you know just over two years ago the city launched Vancouver’s Open Data portal – the first of its kind in Canada and the second municipal open data portal in the World.

This didn’t happen by chance. It took leadership from politicians who were a) willing to see and grasp a good idea long before it was widely celebrated, and b) able to drive it through city hall. It is a testament to those leaders – and the city staff who worked on it – that the city went from talking about the idea to implementing it in less than 3 months.

I know this is not an issue that everyone cares about. Personally, I believe open data is going to play a critical role in helping us rethink how government works, enabling it to be more effective and efficient while also empowering citizens to better understand and contribute to policy discussions. All that isn’t going to capture people’s imagination as much as ensuring the garbage gets collected regularly and on time (that’s important too!), but I do think the open data issue is a proxy, something that shows which leaders are willing to engage in innovative approaches and work with new technologies.

So if you are in Vancouver and you care about this issue, please vote Vision tomorrow. This is the party that made open data happen in Vancouver – and cleared the way for it in Canada. (location of voting stations is available here)

How Architecture Made SFU Vancouver’s University

For those unfamiliar with Vancouver, it is a city that enjoys a healthy one way rivalry between two university: the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Simon Fraser University (SFU).

Growing up here I didn’t think much of Simon Fraser. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way, I mean it literally. SFU was simply never on my radar. UBC I knew. As high school students we would sneak out to its libraries to study for finals and pretend we were mature than we were. But SFU? It was far away. Too remote. Too inaccessible by public transit. Heck, too inaccessible by car(!).

And yet today when I think of Vancouver’s two universities UBC is the one that is never on my radar. After noticing that several friends will be on a panel tonight on How Social Media is Changing Politics at UBC’s downtown campus I was reminded of the fact that UBC has a downtown campus. It may be the most underutilized and unloved space in the University. This despite the fact it sits in the heart of Vancouver and under some of the most prime real estate in the city. In fact I don’t think I’ve actually ever been to UBC’s downtown campus.

In contrast I can’t count the number of time’s I’ve been to SFU’s downtown campus. And the reason is simple: architecture. It’s not that SFU simple invests in its downtown campus making it part of the university, it’s that it invested in Vancouver by building one of the most remarkable buildings in the city. If you are in Vancouver, go visit The Wosk Centre for Dialogue. It is amazing. Indeed, I feel so strongly about it, I included it in my top ten favourite places when Google Maps added me to their list of Lat/Long experts for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Photo by Bryan Hughes

What makes the Wosk Centre so fantastic? It seats 180 or so people in concentric circles, each with their own a mic. It may be the only place where I’ve felt a genuine conversation can take place with such a large group. I’ve seen professors lecture, drug addicts share stories, environmentalists argue among one another and friends debate one another, and it has always been eye opening. Here, in the heart of the city, is a disarming space where stakeholders, experts, citizens or anyone, can be gathered to share ideas and explore their differences in a respectful manner. Moreover, the place just looks beautiful.

Centre-for-dialogue-300x300

The building is a testament to how architecture and design can fundamentally alter the relationship between an institution and the city within which it resides. Without the Wosk Centre I’m confident SFU’s downtown presence would have meant much less to me. Moreover, I’m fully willing to agree that UBC is the better university. It ranks better in virtually ever survey, it has global ambitions that even achievable and likely does not want to be involved in the city. That’s a strategic choice I can, on one level, respect. But on a basic level, the Wosk Centre makes SFU relevant to Vancouverites and in doing so, allows the University to punch above its weight, at least locally. And that has real impact, at least for the city’s residents. But I think for the university as well.

Reading the always excellent Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From I can’t help but think the UBC is missing out on something larger. As Johnson observers, good ideas arise from tensions, from the remixing of other ideas, particularly those from disparate places. They rarely come from the deep thinker isolated out in the woods (UBC lies at the edge of Vancouver beyond a large park) or meditating on a mountain top (SFU’s core campus is atop a small mountain) but out of dense networks where ideas, hunches and thoughts can find one another. Quiet meditation is important. But so to is engagement. Being in the heart of a bustling city is perhaps a distraction, but that may be the point. Those distractions create opportunities, new avenues for exploration and, for universities concerned with raising money from their intellectual capital, to find problems in search of solutions. So raising a structure that is designed to explicitly allow tensions and conflicts to play out… I can’t help but feel that is a real commitment to growth and innovation in a manner that not only gives back to its host community, but positions one to innovate in a manner and pace the 21st century demands.

As such, the Wosk Centre, while maybe a shade formal, is a feat of architecture and design, a building that I hope enables a university to rethink itself, but that has definitely become a core part of the social infrastructure of the city and redrawn at least my own relationship with SFU.

The Economics of Open Data – Mini-Case, Transit Data & TransLink

TransLink, the company that runs public transit in the region where I live (Vancouver/Lower Mainland) has launched a real time bus tracking app that uses GPS data to figure out how far away the next the bus you are waiting for really is. This is great news for everyone.

Of course for those interested in government innovation and public policy it also leads to another question. Will this GPS data be open data?

Presently TransLink does make its transit schedule “open” under a non-commercial license (you can download it here). I can imagine a number of senior TransLink officials (and the board) scratching their head asking: “Why, when we are short of money, would we make our data freely available?”

The answer is that TransLink should make its current data, as well as its upcoming GPS data, open and available under a license that allows for both non-commercial and commercial re-use, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because the economics of it make WAY MORE SENSE FOR TRANSLINK.

Let me explain.

First, there are not a lot of obvious ways TransLink could generate wealth directly from its data. But let’s take two possible opportunities: the first involves selling a transit app to the public (or advertising in such an app), the second is through selling a “next bus” service to companies (say coffee shops or organizations) that believe showing this information might be a convenience to their employees or customers.

TransLink has already abandoned doing paid apps – instead it maintains a mobile website at m.translink.ca – but even if it created an app and charged $1 per download, the revenue would be pitiful. Assuming a very generous customer base of 100,000 users, TransLink would generate maybe $85,000 dollars (once Apple takes its cut from the iPhone downloads, assuming zero cut for Androids). But remember, this is not a yearly revenue stream, it is one time. Maybe, 10-20,000 people upgrade their phone, arrive in Vancouver and decide to download every year. So your year on year revenue is maybe $15K? So over a 5 year period, TransLink ends up with an extra, say $145,000 dollars. Nothing to sneeze at, but not notable.

In contrast a free application encourages use. So there is also a cost to not giving it away. It could be that, having transit data more readily available might cause some people to choose taking transit over say, walking, or taking a taxi or driving. Last year TransLink handled 211.3 million trips. Let’s assume that more accessible data from wider access to the data meant there was a .1% increase in the number of trips. An infinitesimally small increase – but it means 211,300 more trips. Assuming each rider pays a one zone $2.50 fare that would still translate in an additional revenue of $528,250. Over the same five year period cited above… that’s revenue of $2.641M, much better than $145,000. And this is just calculating money. Let’s say nothing of less congested roads, less smog and a lower carbon footprint for the region…

When the this analysis is applied to licensing data it produces the same result. Will UBC pay to have TransLink’s real time data on terminals in the Student Union building? I doubt it. Would some strategically placed coffee shops… possibly. Obviously organizations would have to pay for the signs, but adding on annual “data license fee” to display’s cost would cause some to opt out. And once you take into account managing the signs, legal fees, dealing with the contract and going through the sales process, it is almost inconceivable that TransLink would make more money from these agreements than it would from simply having more signs everywhere created by other people that generated more customers for its actual core business: moving people from A to B for a fee. Just to show you the numbers, if shops that weren’t willing to pay for the data put up “next bus” screens that generated a mere 1000 new regular bus users who did only 40 one way trips a year (or 40,000 new trips), this would equal revenue of $100,000 every year at no cost to translink. Someone else could install and maintain the signs, no contracts or licenses would need to be managed.

From a cost recovery perspective it is almost impossible to imagine a scenario where TransLink is better off not allowing commercial re-use of its data.

My point is that TransLink should not be focused on creating a few bucks from licensing its data (which it doesn’t do right now anyway). It should be focused on shifting the competitive value in the marketplace from access to accessibility.

Being the monopoly holder of transit data does not benefit TransLink. All it means is that fewer people see and engage with its data. When it makes the data open and available “access” no longer becomes the defining advantage. When anybody (e.g. TransLink, Google, independent developers) can access the data, the market place shifts to competing on access to competing on accessibility. Consumers don’t turn to who has the data, they turn to who makes the data easiest to use.

For example, Translink has noted that in 2011 it will have a record number of trips. Part of me wonders to what degree the increase in trips over the past few years is a result of making transit data accessible in Google Maps. (Has anyone done a study on this in any jurisdiction?) The simple fact is that Google maps is radically easier to use for planning transit journeys than Translink’s own website AND THAT IS A GOOD THING FOR TRANSLINK. Now imagine if lots of companies were sharing translink’s data? The local Starbucks and Blenz Coffee, to colleges and universities and busy buildings downtown. Indeed, the real crime right now is that Translink has handed Google a defacto monopoly. It is allowed to use the data for commercial re-use. Local tax-paying developers…? Not so according to the license they have to click through.

Translink, you want a world where everyone is competing (including against you) on accessibility. In the end… you win with greater use and revenue.

But let me go further. There are other benefits to having Translink share its data for commercial re-use.

Procurement

Some riders will note that there are already bus stops in Vancouver which display “next bus” data (e.g. how many minutes away the next bus is). If TransLink made its next bus data freely available via an API it could conceivably alter the procurement process for buying and maintaining these signs. Any vendor could see how the data is structured and so take over the management of the signs, and/or experiment with creating more innovative or cheaper ways of manufacturing them.

The same is true of creating the RFP for TransLink’s website. With the data publicly available, TransLink could simple ask developers to mock up what they think is the most effective way of displaying the data. More development houses might be enticed to respond to the RFP increasing the likelihood of innovations and putting downward pressure of fees.

Analysis

Of course, making GPS data free could have an additional benefit. Local news companies might be able to use the bus’s GPS data to calculate traffic flow rates and so predict traffic jams. Might they be willing to pay TransLink for the data? Maybe, but again probably not enough to justify the legal and sales overhead. Moreover, TransLink would benefit from this analysis – as it could use the reports to adjust its schedule and notify its drivers of problems beforehand. Of course everyone would benefit as well as better informed commuters might change their behaviour (including taking transit!) reducing congestion, smog, carbon footprint, etc…

Indeed, the analysis opportunities using GPS data are potentially endless – much of which might be done by bloggers and university students. One could imagine correlating actual bus/subway times with any other number of data sets (crime, commute times, weather) that could yield interesting information that could help TransLink with its planning. There is no world where TransLink has the resources to do all this analysis, so enabling others to do it, can only benefit it.

Conclusion

So if you are at TransLink/Coast Mountain Bus Company (or any transit authority in the world), this post is for you. Here’s what I suggest as next steps:

1) Add GPS bus tracking API to your open data portal.

2) Change your license. Drop the non-commercial part. It hurts your business more than you realize and is anti competitive (why does can Google use the data for a commercial application while residents of the lower mainland cannot?). My suggestion, adopt the BC Government Open Government License or the PDDL.

3) Add an RSS feed to your GTFS data. Like Google, we’d all like to know when you update your data. Given we live here and are users, it be nice to extend the same service to us as you do them.

4) Maybe hold a Transit Data Camp where you could invite local developers and entrepreneurs to meet your staff and encourage people to find ways to get transit data into the hands of more Lower Mainlanders and drive up ridership!

 

 

DataBC Hackathon this Saturday – inviting the public.

This Saturday, August 27, 2011 the Province of British Columbia is partnering with the Mozilla Foundation and OpenDataBC to host a open data hackathon.

The hackathon will be taking place at Mozilla Labs Vancouver. Their address is:
163 West Hastings Street, suite-200
Vancouver, BC V6B 1H5
(in the very beautiful Flack Building)

So three things:

First, as many of you are probably aware the province recently launched a data portal and so there is a lot of new data to play with. In addition the City of Vancouver continues to update its open data portal, so there is new data there as well. Will be interesting to see what people want to work on.

Second, please do not fret if you are not a developer. As we pointed out last year in the lead up to the open data day international hackathon, there are lots of ways non-developers can contribute – the easiest being… having ideas! So please come on by. I’m definitely going to be there (and I’m no coder) and look forward to seeing familiar and new faces.

Finally, and more to the point, if you are a company, non-profit, or citizen who is has a mashup, analysis, research paper, product, app or pretty much anything else you’d like to create but need data from the province, definitely swing by. I’m sure the staff on hand will be very keen to hear about what you want to do and see if they can make the data available in the near future.

The organizers are hoping that people will RVSP through their contact form (use the ‘other’ subject line) but if you decide last minute to come join, don’t be shy.

Hope to see you there!

 

Social Media and Rioters

My friend Alexandra Samuel penned a piece titled “After a Loss in Vancouver, Troubling Signals of Citizen Surveillance” over at the Harvard Business Review. The piece highlights her concern with the number of people willing to engage in citizen surveillance.

As she states:

It’s one thing to take pictures as part of the process of telling your story, or as part of your (paid or unpaid) work as a citizen journalist. It’s another thing entirely to take and post pictures and videos with the explicit intention of identifying illegal (or potentially illegal) activity. At that moment you are no longer engaging in citizen journalism; you’re engaging in citizen surveillance.

And I don’t think we want to live in a society that turns social media into a form of crowdsourced surveillance. When social media users embrace Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogs as channels for curating, identifying and pursuing criminals, that is exactly what they are moving toward.

I encourage you to read the piece, and, I’m not sure I agree with much of it on two levels.

First, I want to steer away from good versus bad and right versus wrong. Social Media isn’t going to create only good outcomes, or only bad outcomes, it is going to create both (something I know Alex acknowledges). This technology will, like previous technologies, reset what normal means. In the new world we are becoming more powerful “sensors” in our society. We can enable others to know what, good and bad, is going on around us. To believe that we won’t share, and that others won’t use our shared information to inform their decisions, is simply not logical. As dBarefoot points out in the comments there are lots of social good that can come for surveillance. In the end you can’t post videos of human right injustices without also being able to post videos of people at abortion clinics, you can’t post videos of officials taking bribes without also being able to post videos of people smoking drugs at a party. The alternative, a society where people are not permitted to share, strikes me as even more dangerous than a society where we can share but where one element of that sharing ends up being used as surveillance. My suspicion is that we may end up regulating some use – there will be some things people cannot share online (visiting abortion clinics may end up being one of those) but I’m not confident of even this.

But I suspect that in a few decades my children will be stunned that I grew up in a world of no mutual surveillance. That we tolerated the risks of a world where mutual surveillance didn’t exist – they may wonder at a basic level, how we felt safe at night or in certain circumstances (I really recommend David Brin’s Science Fiction writing, especially Earth in which he explores this idea). I can also imagine they will find the idea of total anonymity and having an untraceable past to both eerie, frightening and intriguing. In their world, having grown up with social media will be different, some of the things we feel are bad, they will like, and vice versa.

Another issues missing from Alex’s piece is the role of the state. It is one thing for people to post pictures of each other, it is another about how, and if, the state does the same. As many tweeters stated – this isn’t 1994 (the last time there were riots in Vancouver). Social media is going to do is make the enforcement of law a much and the role of the state a much trickier subject. Ultimately, they cannot ignore photos of rioters engaged in illegal acts. So the question isn’t so much on what we are going to share, it is about what we should allow the state to do, and not to do, with the information we create. The state’s monopoly on violence gives it a unique role, one that will need to be managed carefully. This monopoly, combined with a world of perfect (or at least, a lot more) information will I imagine necessitate a state and justice system that that looks very, very different than the one we have right now if we are to protect of civil liberties as we presently understand them. (I suspect I’ll be writing some more about this)

But I think the place where I disagree the most with Alex is in the last paragraph:

What social media is for — or what it can be for, if we use it to its fullest potential — is to create community. And there is nothing that will erode community faster, both online and off, than creating a society of mutual surveillance.

Here, Alex confuses the society she’d like to live in with what social media enables. I see nothing to suggest that mutual surveillance will erode community, indeed, I think it already has demonstrated that it does the opposite. Mutual surveillance fosters lots of communities – from communities that track human rights abuses, to communities that track abortion providers to communities that track disabled parking violators. Surveillance builds communities, it may be that, in many cases, those communities pursue the marginalization of another community or termination of a specific behaviour, but that does not make them any less a part of our society’s fabric. It may not create communities everyone likes, but it can create community. What matters here is not if we can monitor one another, but what ends up happening with the information we generate, and why I think we’ll want to think hard about what we allow the state to do and to permit others to do, more and more carefully.

Lost Open Data Opportunities

Even sometimes my home town of Vancouver gets it wrong.

Reading Chad Skelton’s blog (which I frequently regularly and recommend to my fellow Vancouverites) I was reminded of the great work he did creating an interactive visualization of the city’s parking tickets as part of a series around parking in Vancouver. Indeed, it is worth noting that the entire series was powered by data supplied by the city. Sadly, it just wasn’t (and still isn’t) open data. Quite the opposite, it was data that was wrestled, with enormous difficulty, via an FOI (ATIP) request.

parking-tickets

In the same blog post Chad recounts how he struggled to get the parking data from the city:

Indeed, the last major FOI request I made to the city was for its parking-ticket data. I had to fight the city tooth and nail to get them to cough up the information in the format I wanted it in (for months their FOI coordinator claimed, falsely, that she couldn’t provide the records in spreadsheet format). Then, when the parking ticket series finally ran, I got an email from the head of parking enforcement. He was wondering how he could get reprints of the series — he thought it was so good he wanted to hand it out to new parking enforcement officers during their training.

What is really frustrating about this paragraph is the last sentence. Obviously the people who find the most value in this analysis and tool are the city staff who manage parking infractions. So here is someone who, for free(!), provides an analysis and some stories that they now use to train new officers and he had to fight to get the data. The city would have been poorer without Chad’s story and analysis. And yet it fought him. Worse, an important player in the civic space (and an open data ally) feels frustrated by the city.

There are of course, other uses I could imagine for this data. I could imagine the data embedded into an application (ideally one like Washington DC’s Park IT DC – which let’s you find parking meters on a map, identify if they are available or not, and see local car crime rates for the area) so that you can access the risk of getting a ticket if you choose not to pay. This feels like the worse case scenario for the city, and frankly, it doesn’t feel that bad and would probably not affect people’s behaviour that much. But there may be other important uses of this data – it may correlate in some interestingly and unpredictably against other events – connections that if made and shared, might actually allow the city to leverage its enforcement officers more efficiently and effectively.

Of course, we won’t know what those could be, since the data isn’t shared, but it is the kind of thing Vancouver should be doing, given the existence of its open data portal. But all government’s should take note. There is a cost to not sharing data. Lost opportunities, lost insights and value, lost allies and networks of people interested in contributing to your success. It’s all our loss.

City of Vancouver Wins Top Innovator Award from BC Business

To be clear, this is not top innovator among governments, this is top innovator among all organizations – for-profit, non-profit and government – in the province.

You can see the award write up here.

As the article states, Vancouver Open-Data initiative “floored the [judging] panel.” Indeed, one panellist stated: “I have never seen a municipality open to new ideas in my life. When was the last time any level of government said, Here are our books; fill your boots?”

Back in October BC Business asked me to write a think piece explaining open data, I ended up penning this piece entitled “The Difference Data Makes”. It fantastic to see the business community recognizing the potential of open data and how it could transform both the way government works, and the opportunities it poses for the private and non-profit organizations as well as citizens.

It’s a great data for the City of Vancouver and for Open Data.

Launching an Open Data Business: Recollect.net (Vantrash 2.0)

Have you ever forgotten to take the garbage or recycling out? Wouldn’t it be nice if someone sent you a reminder the night before, or the morning of? Maybe an email, or an SMS, or even a phone call?

Now you can set it up so somebody does. Us.

Introducing Recollect: the garbage and recycling collection reminder service.

For People

We’ve got the garbage schedules for a number of Canadian cities big and small (with American ones coming soon) – test our site out to see if we support yours.

You can set up a reminder for the night before – or the day of – your garbage pickup, and we’ll email, text or call you letting you know your garbage day is imminent and what will be picked up (say, recycling, yard waste or garbage). Our email and Twitter reminders are free, and text message and phone calls cost $1.50 a month.

If you think you, your sibling, friends, or your parents might like a service like this, please come check out our website.

It’s simple and we hope you’ll give it a whirl.

For Cities

We don’t think that Recollect is going to change the world, but we do think we can help better manage citizens’ expectations around customer service. For cities (and companies) interested in connecting with their citizens and customers, we have have a number of partnering options we have already started to explore with some cities.

More importantly, if you’d like to see Recollect come to your city, have your garbage schedule and zones available for download – like Edmonton and Vancouver.

On either of these fronts, if you are a politician, city employee or a business owner who needs a reminder service of some kind, please contact us.

Background – an open data municipal business

In June of 2009, as Vancouver was preparing to launch its open data portal I wrote a blog post called How Open Data even makes Garbage collection sexier, easier and cheaper in which I talked about how, using city data, a developer could create a garbage pickup reminder service for Vancouverites. Tim Bray called it his Hello World moment for Open Data. More importantly, Luke Closs and Kevin Jones, two Vancouver programers (and now good friends) took the idea and made it real. The program was called Vantrash, and in two quiet, low-maintenance years – with no advertising or marketing – it garnered over 3000 users.

Last week we retired Vantrash. Today, we launched Recollect.

Yes, Recollect is more beautiful than its predecessor, but more importantly it is going to start serving your community. At a high level, we want to see if we can scale an open data business to a continental level. Can we use open data to serve a range of cities across North America?

At a practical level, the goal of Recollect is more basic: To help make citizens’ lives just a little bit easier by providing them customized reminders for services they use, to the device of their choice, at the time of their choice.

Let’s face it: We are all too busy being parents, holding down jobs or enjoying the limited free time we have to remember things like garbage day or little league schedules. Our job is to make your life easier by finding ways to free our minds of wasting time remembering these small details. If you aren’t trying to remember to take out the garbage, hopefully it means you can spend a little more time thinking about your family, your work or whatever your passion may be.

In short, we believe that city services should be built around your life – and we are trying to take a small step to bring that a little closer to reality.

Again, we don’t expect Recollect to change the world. But we do hope that it will serve as a building block for rethinking the government-user experience that will lay the foundations so that others will be able to change the world.