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.
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 FixMyStreet.com
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.