Tag Archives: cities

Vancouver's Open Data Portal: Use it, or Lose it.

As some of you saw yesterday via Twitter, Vancouver has launched a beta version of its open data portal. This is a major milestone for Vancouver on several levels. It is a testament to our politicians, who had the vision and foresight to embrace this idea. It is a tribute to the city’s staff who have worked unbelievably hard to make this project come alive so quickly. It is a triumph for those of us who advocate and have been working with the city to move us towards open government and government as platform. Finally, it represents an enormous opportunity for coders and citizens alike, and it is to this group that I’d like to address this blog post.

The Data Portal represents an opportunity for citizens, especially citizen coders, to help create a City that Thinks Like the Web: a city that enables citizens to create and access collective knowledge and information to create new services, suggest new ideas, and identify critical bugs in the infrastructure and services, among other a million other possibilities.

But the open data is only the part of the puzzle. Yes, our data is now beginning to be set free. But we have to use it.

If not, we’ll risk losing it.

I wish I could say that the city will share data no matter what and that political support will continue forever. But the fact is, municipal resources are limited. While the potential of open data is enormous, we need more than potential; we need some wins. More importantly, we need an active and engaged community working to make Vancouver better, more efficient, and more interesting because of our open data. We need to show politicians and public servants in Vancouver, but also in Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Nanaimo, Moncton and other places across the country that citizens want access to data, and that if we get it, we will help their city (or province, or country) come alive in new and inventive ways.

Back in June, shortly after City Council passed Open3 (the nickname for the Open Motion), I gave this presentation to both City staff and at Open Web Vancouver. In it I described how “the bargain” Clay Shirky says exists on every successful web 2.0 site also exists in cities that want to think like the web.

In our case the bargain is simple: On one side, the city agrees to share as much data as it possibly can, in open formats, as quickly as it can. On the other side, the community – and in particular citizen coders – must make that data come alive in applications, websites and analysis. The city has taken the first step in fulfilling its side of the bargain. (And yes, we need to keep adding more data; there is work to be done.) Now it is time to activate the other half of the bargain. If we don’t, we put the deal at risk.

So what can you do?

First, you can code up an app, or find ways to help those who are. Indeed, there is going to be a Hackathon tomorrow evening at the Vancouver Archives to do just this. A number of projects are already underway that you can join – or start one yourself! I will be there myself, and I encourage you to swing by too.

Second, if you’d like to build an application, but the dataset you need is currently not available, then complete the city’s Open Data priority survey!

Third, come add ideas, resources and projects to the Vancouver Open Data Wiki.

I’m enormously excited to see what evolves next. As many of you know, I’ve been advising the Mayor’s Office on open data and open government for several months now – and through my work with them and with city staff, I’ve been deeply impressed by the energy and commitment that I’ve seen. As far as I know, only three major cities have created data portals such as this, and to do this in three months is incredible. Over the next few days I’m going to share some more thoughts on what the Open Data portal means for Vancouver. If you get a chance I hope you’ll send me your thoughts as well, or post some to your own blog if you have one.

How to Engage Citizens on a Municipal Website…

Sometimes, it’s nice to be small, the City of Nanaimo has been pushing the envelop on open data and open government for a number of years now.

Recently, I was directed to their new Council Agendas and Minutes webpage. I recommend you check it out.

Here’s why.

At first blush the site seems normal. There is the standard video of the council meeting (queue cheesy local cable access public service announcement), but them meeting minutes underneath are actually broken down by the second and by clicking on them you can jump straight to that moment in the meeting.

As anyone who’s ever attended a City Council meeting (or the legislature, or parliament) knows, the 80/20 rule is basically always in effect. About 80% of the time the proceedings are either dead boring and about 20% (often much less) of the time the proceedings are exciting, or more importantly, pertinent to you. One challenge with getting citizens engaged on the local level is that they often encounter a noise to signal problem. The ratio of “noise” (issues a given citizen doesn’t care about) drowns out the “signal” (the relatively fewer issues they do care about).

The City of Nanaimo’s website helps address this problem. It enables citizens to find what matters to them without having to watch or scroll through a long and dry council meeting. Better still, they are given a number of options by which to share that relevant moment with friends, neighbours, allies or colleagues via twitter, facebook, delicious or any other number of social media tools.

One might be wondering: can my city afford such a wizbang setup?

Excellent question.

Given Nanaimo’s modest size (it has 78,692 citizens) suggests they have a modest IT budget. So I asked Chris McLuckie, a City of Nanaimo public servant who worked on the project. He informed me that the system was built in-house by him and another city staff member, it uses off-the-shelf hardware and software and so cost under $2000 and it took 2 week to code up.

2 weeks?

No million dollar contract? No 8 month timeline? No expensive new software?

No. Instead, if you’re smart, you might find a couple of local creative citizen-hackers to put something together in no time at all.

You know what’s more, because Chris and the City of Nanaimo want to help more cities learn how to think like the web, I bet if the IT director from any city (or legislative body) asked nicely, they would just give them the code.

So how Open is your city? And if not, do they have $2000 lying around to change that?

Opendata & Opencities: Proposed panel for SXSWi

panel pickerOver the past year I’ve been inspired by the fact that an increasing number of cities are thinking about how to more effectively share the data they generate with their citizens.

As most readers of this blog are probably aware, I’ve been engrossed advising the Mayor’s Office here in Vancouver on the subject and am excited about the progress being made on the City’s open data project.

Since there is so much energy around this topic across North America I thought there might be interest among SXSWers on the opportunities, challenges and benefits surrounding open data.

Here’s my proposed panel, and if you think it is a good idea I’d be elated if you took the time to head over to the panel picker website and voted for it!

Title:

OpenData: Creating Cities That Think Like the Web

Level:

Beginner

Category:

Community / Online Community, Government and Technology, Social Issues, User Generated Content, Web Apps / Widgets

Questions:

  1. What is open data?
  2. How can I effectively mobilize people to get my local government to share data?
  3. How can open data be shared most effectively?
  4. What are the benefits of open data?
  5. What business models are emerging around municipal open data?
  6. How can citizens/citizen coders help government bureaucracies share open data?
  7. How do government bureaucracies centered on secrecy and security shift to being interested in open?
  8. How is open data changing the role of government?
  9. How is open data changing the relationship between citizens and government?

Description:

Across North America municipal governments are opening up their data and encouraging citizens to create online applications, mash-ups and tools to improve city services and foster engagement. Panelists from cities leading this open movement will discuss the challenges, lessons, benefits and opportunities of open data and open government.

Some of the people I’d love to have as panelists include:

Kelly Pretzer (@kellypretzer) Is a City of SF employee who has been working with a team on an open data initiative with the city of SF. You can track their work here.

Peter Corbett (@corbett3000) is CEO of iStrategyLabs. iStrategy Labs is the organization that ran the Apps for Democracy competition in Washington DC. If Peter can’t make it, we’d hope iStrategy could send a representative.

Ryan Merkley (@ryanmerkley) Political advisor to the Mayor of Toronto and helping oversee the open Toronto Initiative.

Myself! (@david_a_eaves) I’ve been advising the Mayor of Vancouver on open government and open data and co-drafted the Open Motion, passed by the City of Vancouver on May 21st.

It would, of course, be nice to have Vivek Kundra, but I’ll confess, I’m not sure I have that kind of pull…

Open Cities – the Counter Reaction

The Washington Monthly has an interesting piece about how some bureaucracies are having a reactionary (but albeit unsurprising) reaction to open data initiatives. The article focuses on how the data used by one application, Stumble Safely “helps you find the best bars and a safe path to stumble home on” by mashing together DC Crime Data, DC Road Polygons, DC Liquor Licenses, DC Water, DC Parks, and DC Metro Stations.

However, arming citizens with precise knowledge doesn’t appear to make one group of people happy: The Washington, D.C. police department. As the article notes:

But a funny thing has happened since Eric Gundersen launched his application: Stumble Safely has become less useful, rather than more so. When you click on the gray and red crime-indicating dots that have appeared on the map in the past few months, you don’t get much information about what exactly happened—all you get is a terse, one-word description of the category of the incident (”assault,” or “theft”) and a time, with no details of whether it was a shootout or just a couple of kids punching each other in an alley.

This isn’t Gundersen’s fault—it’s the cops’. Because while Kundra and the open-data community were fans of opening up the city’s books, it turned out that the Metropolitan Police Department was not. Earlier this year, as apps like Stumble Safely grew in number and quality, the police stopped releasing the detailed incident reports—investigating officers’ write-ups of what happened—into the city’s data feed. The official reason for the change is concern over victims’ and suspects’ privacy. But considering that before the clampdown the reports were already being released with names and addresses redacted, it’s hard to believe that’s the real one. More likely, the idea of information traveling more or less unedited from cops’ keyboards to citizens’ computer screens made the brass skittish, and the department reacted the way bureaucracies usually do: it made public information harder to get. The imperatives of Government 2.0 were thwarted by the instincts of Government 1.0.

This is just one in a long list of ways that old-style government (1.0) is reacting against technology. The end result sadly however is that the action taken by the police doesn’t reduce crime, it just reduces the public’s confidence in the police force. This is just a small example of the next big debate that will take place at all levels of government: Will your government try to control information and services or will it develop trust by being both accountable and open to others building on its work? You can’t have it both ways and I suspect citizens – particularly creatives – are going to strongly prefer the latter.

This is a crosspost from my Open Cities Blog at CreativeClass.com

The Rise of the Open City: the current state of affairs

I’ve been following with great interest the number of cities partaking in open data initiatives. With the online announcement yesterday of a motion going before Calgary’s City Council, things are again on the move. So what is the count at now? This little table tries to capture who’s done what so far. If I’m missing something please do let me know – I will try to update this from time to time.

City

Date of initial activity

Action

Note

Website

Washington, DC October 12th, 2008 Created a data portal on city website and launched apps for democracy Action was taken by the CIO, no city motion passed. Currently launching a second apps for democracy contest. http://data.octo.dc.gov/
Vancouver, BC May 21st, 2009 Vancouver City Council Passes the Open Motion Open Data website is in the works, release date unknown. N/A
San Francisco, CA June 16th, 2009 City of SF posts a craigslist request looking for developers to help create a data.gov like site for the city No motion passed, there is an OpenSF blog where current activities and ideas are shared. N/A
Nanaimo, BC June 22nd, 2009 City launches an open data website No motion passed http://www.nanaimo.ca/datafeeds/
New York City, NY June 25th, 2009 A bill is being circulated by Council Member Gale Brewer Has announced a “Big Apps” competition for apps that use 80 soon to be released city data sets. N/A
Calgary, AB July 27th, 2009 City of Calgary tables an Open Motion to be debated N/A N/A
Toronto, ON 2010 Announces (April 7th, 2009) intention of creating open data website Mayor David Miller announces Toronto will create an open data website by fall of 2009 at Mesh 09 conference N/A
Ottawa, ON I’ve heard there is movement in Ottawa, have not found any information

North America and the Auto Sector: The Upside of Down

Anyone else notice how circumscribed the debate over the auto sector has been? Some news outlets have occasionally asked “is the bail out fair?” but the discussion has remained fairly limited. Specifically, pieces on the auto-sector bailouts tends to be restricted to the negative consequences in relation to the costs in jobs: the moral hazard the bailout creates, the (unfair) treatment the bailout affords autoworkers, the concerns over the enormous burden the bailouts imposes on taxpayers, the impact on affected communities. Even within this narrow discourse,few commentators have even been outspoken. Maclean’s has probably been the most interesting. It bluntly outlined the gong show the industry has become  with this set of amazing statistics and its columnist Andrew Coyne published has posted piece after piece where he rightly points out the opportunity cost of bailing out the auto industry.

However, none of the commentary on the North American auto-sector’s dramatic decline has touched on how this change will impact the continent’s political and policy landscape. It interesting because, while it isn’t polite to talk about it, the fact is, there are upsides to the decline of the North American auto sector.

Start wit the fact that we will now only have one or two (smaller) American auto companies and their relative importance to the US economy will be dramatically diminished. It is hard to imagine that the political muscle of this sector will not equally diminish. This is no small matter. Huge swaths of American (and thus, in part, Canadian) public policy is explicitly and/or implicitly focused on ensuring that people either need cars, or that cars are never a burden. (Remember, these are companies that, with political and government acquiescence, bought up public transport companies across the US just so they could tear up the tracks their trams ran on to push people into cars or, if they had to, the buses the car companies built.)

So everything from highways, to urban planning, to emission controls, to business hours… almost everything in our society, is shaped by the fact that cars and the auto-sector were a large and integral part of the North American economy and its social fabric.

And so all these decision, all these debates about how North Americans should structure their society, they are all going to open up again as American auto companies cease to exist or decline in importance. The US congress is much more likely to impose tougher emission restrictions if those restrictions most likely impact foreign companies. If more roads don’t create more American jobs and profits then public transport – not the auto-sector – becomes slightly more appealing to subside.

It is true that Americans (and Canadians) love their cars. But this love didn’t come out of nowhere, it was nursed by decades of social policy and economic planning. Now the incentives that created and sustained that process are potentially irrevocably weakened. The consequences are terrible for those who work in the sector, but they may end up being liberating and renewing for society at large. For cities, citizens and communities the implicit legal, political and policy barriers that have prevented alternatives are already beginning to decay.

At that’s a big upside.

The Open Cities Blog on the Creative Exchange

Excited to let everyone know that I’ll be blogging at the Creative Exchange on Open Cities. I’ll continue to blog here 4 times a week and the pieces I post there I’ll cross-post here as well.

It’s an opportunity to talk about how openess and transparency can/will change our cities to a wider audience.

Wish me luck. Here was my first post.

Creating Open Cities

Web 2.0 is the network as platform, spanning all connected devices; Web 2.0 applications are those that make the most of the intrinsic advantages of that platform: delivering software as a continually-updated service that gets better the more people use it, consuming and remixing data from multiple sources, including individual users, while providing their own data and services in a form that allows remixing by others, creating network effects through an “architecture of participation,” and going beyond the page metaphor of Web 1.0 to deliver rich user experiences.

Tim O’Reilly

To the popular press “hacker” means someone who breaks into computers. Among programmers it means a good programmer. But the two meanings are connected. To programmers, “hackers” connotes mastery in the most literal sense: someone who can make a computer do what he wants-whether the computer wants to or not.

Paul Graham, Hackers & Painters

Welcome to the Open Cities blog on CCE. My name is David Eaves and I’ve been writing, speaking, and thinking about open, citizen engagement and public policy for a number of years. Most recently, I worked to help push forward the City of Vancouver motion that requires the city to share more data, adopt open standards, and treat open source and proprietary software equally.

Cities have always been platforms – geographic and legal platforms upon which people collaborate to create enterprises, exchange ideas, educate themselves, celebrate their culture, start families, found communities, and raise children. Today the power of information technology is extending this platform, granting us new ways to collaborate and be creative. As Clay Shirky notes in Here Comes Everybody, this new (dis)order is powerful. For the meaning and operation of cities, it will be transformative.

How transformative? The change created by information technology is driving what will perhaps be seen as the greatest citizen-led renewal of urban spaces in our history. Indeed, I believe it may even be creating a new type of city, one whose governance models, economies and notions of citizenship are still emerging, but different from their predecessors. These new cities are Open Cities: cities that, like the network of web 2.0, are architected for participation and so allow individuals to create self-organized solutions and allow governments to tap into the long-tail of public policy.

And just in the nick of time. To succeed in the 21st century, cities will have to simultaneously thrive in a global economy, adapt to climate change, integrate a tsunami of rural and/or foreign migrants, as well as deal with innumerable other challenges and opportunities. These issues go far beyond the capacity and scope of almost any government – not to mention the all-too-often under-resourced City Hall.

Open Cities address this capacity shortfall by drawing on the social capital of their citizens. Online, city dwellers are hacking the virtual manifestation of their city which, in turn, is giving them the power to shape the physical space. Google transit, DIYcity, Apps for Democracy are great urban hacks, they allow cities to work for citizens in ways that were previously impossible. And this is only the beginning.

Still more exciting, hacking is a positive sum game. The more people hack their city – not in the poorly misunderstood popular press meaning of breaking into computers but in (sometimes artful, sometimes amateur) way of making a system (read city) work for their benefit – the more useful data and services they create and remix. Ultimately, Open Cities will be increasingly vibrant and safe because they are hackable. This will allow their citizens to unleash their creativity, foster new services, find conveniences and efficiencies, notice safety problems, and build communities.

In short, the cities that harness the collective ingenuity, creativity, and energy of its citizenry will thrive. Those that don’t – those that remain closed – won’t. And this divide – open vs. closed – could become the new dividing line of our age. And it is through this lens that this blog will look at the challenges and opportunities facing cities, their citizens, and institutions. Let’s see who’s open, how they’re getting open, and what it will all mean.