Tag Archives: OpenCities

Garbage Collection now IS sexy: Introducing VanTrash

garbage-can_rgbA few months ago some of you will remember I blogged about How Open Data even makes Garbage collection sexier, easier and cheaper. I suggested that, with open data, coders could digitize the city’s garbage collection schedule and city maps and enable citizens to download it into their calendar or even set up a recurring email reminder.

The post went fairly viral being picked up places like here and here. As a result, two weeks later Luke Closs and Kevin Jones, two Vancouver based coders with a strong sense of fun and civic duty emailed me and said they’d actually scrapped the data and had created an alpha version of the site. I offered my (meagre) skills to help move the application forward and we began working on it.

Today, I’m pleased to say that VanTrash has been launched. If you live in Vancouver (or don’t) please do take a look at the website.

Our goal with VanTrash is twofold. First: we want a great service that leverages public data to helpmake our fellow citizens’ lives a little better or easier. Second: we’d like to sign up 3000 or more users.

Since there are about 260,000 households in Vancouver (although many have private contracted garbage pick up) 3000 users would represent between 1-2% of all households for whom the city collects their garbage. There are not that many services that citizens opt in for that get this market penetration – especially services created for virtually nothing. The more users we get, the stronger the message we send to government’s everywhere that government is a platform and that we need to let citizens built on top of it. More importantly, we demonstrate that great, and useful, things can be done for cheap, a lesson citizens and governments need to constantly relearn.

So if you live in Vancouver, and you think there service would be helpful to you (or perhaps to a forgetful or absent minded friend, family member or neighbour) please sign up or spread the word.

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!


OpenData: Creating Cities That Think Like the Web




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


  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?


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…

Creating the Open Data Bargain in Cities

Embedded below is the talk I’ve given to both community hackers (at Open Web Vancouver) as well as City of Vancouver Staff regarding the opportunities and challenges around open data and the open motion. (Here’s an update on where Vancouver is at courtesy of some amazing work by city staff).

For those willing to brave through the presentation (or simply fast forward to the end) one piece I felt is most important is the talk’s last section which outlines what I term “The Bargain” in a reference to the informal contract Clay Shirky says exists between every Web 2.0 site and their users.

The bargain comes last, because it matters only if there is a promise (open and shared data) and a set of tools (applications languages) that are already working together. The bargain is also the most complex aspect of a functioning group, in part because it is the least explicit aspect and in part because it is the one the users have the biggest hand in creating, which means it can’t be completely determined in advance… A bargain helps clarify what you can expect of others and what they can expect of you.

Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everybody (my italics, page 270)

I believe that in an open city, a similar bargain exists between a government and its citizens. To make open data a success and to engage the community a city must listen, engage, ask for help, and of course, fulfil its promise to open data as quickly as possible. But this bargain runs both ways. The city must to its part, but so, on the flip side, must the local tech community. They must participate, be patient (cities move slower than tech companies), offer help and, most importantly, make the data come alive for each other, policy makers and citizens through applications and shared analysis.

Open Data at the City of Vancouver – An Update 16/7/2009


For those interested in the progress around the Open Motion (or Open3 as city staff have started to call it) I’ve a little update.

Last week during a visit to city hall to talk about the motion I was shown a preview of the website the city has created to distribute and share data sets. For those unsure what such a website would look like, the baseline and example I’m measuring the city against is, of course, the Washington DC website. At the moment the city’s prospective website looks more like the (also impressive) beta site the City of Nanaimo set up after ChangeCamp – a little simpler and with a lot fewer data sets, but it is the first step.

As an aside kudos to the City of Nanaimo team which has been pushing open data and especially geo-data for quite some time as this must read Time magazine piece (yes, a must read Time magazine piece) will attest.

Anyway… back to Vancouver. The fact that the city has a beta website with a (very) modest amount of data ready to launch is a testament to the hard work and effort of the City’s IT staff. Rarely in my work with government’s have I seen something move so quickly and so needless to say… I’m quite excited. At the moment, I don’t know when the beta data site will go live – there are still a few remaining issues being worked on – but as soon as it launches I will be writing a blog post.

In the interim, big kudos should also go to the City’s Archives who posted a number of videos from the archives online and created it’s own YouTube Channel. They received so much traffic over the videos that the servers almost ground to a halt. Awesome, I say. It just goes to show how much interest there is out there.

Also exciting is that my post on how open data makes garbage collection sexy has inspired two local hackers (Luke and Kevin) to scrape the city’s garbage calendar and hand created digital versions of the city’s garbage maps to create the app I spec’ed out in the blog post. (I’ll have more on that, including links, in a few weeks) Luke also suggested I start recording other app ideas that come to me so over at the Vancouver Data Google group which was created on the fly by local coders in the audience during my and Andrea’s presentation at Open Web Vancouver. I’ve asked people to share their ideas for applications (mobile or desktop) that they’d like to see created with open data.

Sooooo… if there is an app you’d like to see created please post it to the google group or send me an email or write it in the comments below. No guarantees that it will be created but I’m hoping to help organize some hack-a-thons (or as my city friends prefer… code sprints). Having some ideas for people to sink their teeth into is always helpful.

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.

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 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.


Want to say congratulations to Jay Goldman, Eli Singer and Mark Kuznicki. Their article on TransitCamp has been published in the February 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of an unconference – like TransitCamp or the opencities unconference we put on last year – the article is a great starting point.

It’s a wonderful example about how citizens can be engaged in a truly meaningful way. As the website states: TransitCamp was – and will continue to be – a solution playground, not a complaints department. It is as much a celebration of transit as it is a place where people gather to figure out how to make it better.

Much like a NFL game is as much about the tailgating, social/community oriented party in the stadium parking lot as it is about the serious game going on inside the stadium, TransitCamp is as much about celebrating and uniting the transit community as it is about the serious work of figuring out how to make the TTC better.

And, to top it all off, it was a place where ideas get to flourish and are not subjected to consensus and other lowest common denominator approaches.

This, and all sorts of other good reasons, is why HBR made it a breakthrough idea for 2008.

(BTW: Go Pats Go)

Open Cities – A Success…

Finally beginning to relax after a hectic week of speeches, work and helping out with the Open Cities unconference.

Open Cities was dynamite – it attracted an interesting cross section of people from the arts, publishing, IT, non-profit and policy sectors (to name a few). This was my first unconference and so the most interesting take away was seeing how an openly conducted (un)conference – one with virtually no agenda or predetermined speakers – can work so well. Indeed, it worked better than most conferences I’ve been to. (Of course, it helps when it is being expertly facilitated by someone like Misha G.)

Here’s a picture chart of the agenda coming together mid-morning (thank you to enigmatix1 for the photos)

There was no shortage of panels convened by the participants. I know Mark K. is working on getting details from each of them up on the Open Cities wiki as quickly as possible. Hopefully these can be organized more succinctly in the near future (did I just volunteer myself?).

There were several conversation I enjoyed – hope to share more on them over the coming days – but wanted to start with the idea of helping grow the Torontopedia. The conversation was prompted by several people asking why Toronto does not have its own wiki (it does). Fortunately, Himy S. – who is creating the aforementioned Torontopedia – was on hand to share in the conversation.

A Toronto wiki – particularly one that leverages Google Maps’ functionality could provide an endless array of interesting content. Indeed the conversation about what information could be on such a wiki forked many times over. Two ideas seemed particularly interesting:

The first idea revolved around getting the city’s history up on a wiki. This seemed like an interesting starting point. Such information, geographically plotted using Google Maps, would be a treasure trove for tourists, students and interested citizens. More importantly, there is a huge base of public domain content, hidden away in the city’s archives, that could kick start such a wiki. The ramp up costs could be kept remarkably low. The software is open sourced and the servers would not be that expensive. I’m sure an army of volunteer citizens would emerge to help transfer the images, stories and other media online. Indeed I’d wage a $100,000 grant from the Trillium Foundation, in connection with the City Archives, Historica and/or the Dominion Institute, as well as some local historical societies could bring the necessary pieces together. What a small price to pay to give citizens unrestricted access to, and the opportunity to add to, they stories and history of their city.

The interesting part about such a wiki is that it wouldn’t have to be limited to historical data. Using tags, any information about the city could be submitted. As a result, the second idea for the wiki was to get development applications and proposals online so citizens can learn about how or if their neighborhoods will be changing and how they have evolved.

Over the the course of this discussion I was stunned to learn that a great deal of this information is kept hidden by what – in comparison to Vancouver at least – is a shockingly secretive City Hall. In Vancouver, development applications are searchable online and printed out on giant billboards (see photo) and posted on the relevant buildings.Development application According to one participant, Toronto has no such requirements! To learn anything about a development proposal you must first learn about it (unclear how this happens) and then go down to City Hall to look at a physical copy of the proposal (it isn’t online?). Oh, and you are forbidden to photocopy or photograph any documents. Heaven forbid people learn about how their neighbourhood might change…

Clearly a wiki won’t solve this problem in its entirety – as long as Toronto City Hall refuses to open up access to its development applications. However, collecting the combined knowledge of citizens on a given development will help get more informed and hopefully enable citizens to better participate in decisions about how their neighbourhood will evolve. It may also create pressure on Toronto City Hall to start sharing this information more freely.

To see more photo’s go to flickr and search the tags for “open cities.”

Open Cities Unconference tomorrow

Great news! Open Cities has maxed out capacity (at 90 people). Big thank you to The Centre for Social Innovation who’ve been kind enough to host us…

There has been some good media coverage for our humble event… BlogTO talks about here as well as shares Will Pate’s and my thoughts,and Boing Boing gave us a shout out.

For those unable to participate (cause you’re busy during the day or are on the waiting list) come join us afterwords for a little BBQ at Fort York in Toronto.  The BBQ will likely get going around 5pm.

Looking forward to share more about the event after the weekend…