Tag Archives: vancouver

International Open Data Day Feb 23rd: Vancouver Edition

So International Open Data is rapidly approaching! All around the world people are organizing local events to bring together developers, designers, policy wonks, non-profits, government officials, journalists, everyday citizens and others to play, chart, analyze, educate and/or build apps with open data.

For those of us who started International Open Data Day, it was never designed to be just a hackathon. Rather we’ve always wanted it to be an event that anyone interested in data, and interested in open data about their community in particular, could come to. So if you live in Vancouver and that is you… please sign up here. If you live somewhere else, check out the wiki as there are events happening all around the world.

So what do we have planned in Vancouver? And what will be some fun projects to work on?

Open Data Dating!

Well, this year, generously, the event will be taking place at City Hall and we are expecting some staff to be on hand. Following the lead from the excellent organizers in Ottawa were going to run some open data dating. Specifically, we’ll have city staff share with us what is some of the data they have, how they are using it, and answer questions participants may have. These conversations often spark ideas on behalf of both staff and participants about useful analysis or apps that could be created, or important data that should be collected.

Budget Visualization

Stéphane Guidoin from Montreal is trying to get people at Open Data Events across Canada (and possibly around the world) to input their city’s budget data into Where Does My Money Go so we can toy with creating some visualizations of city budgets. Not sure yet that we can get the budget data, but think it could be scrapped – but am nonetheless hopeful.

Homelessness and Rental Properties

One of the big priorities of city government is homelessness. The city is gearing up to launch a database of infractions affecting rental properties. Councillor Reimer – who is been a strong supporter of open data and addressing homelessness – will be on hand and has several ideas about how this data could be used to help the city, and residents, better understand the nature of some of the challenges around housing and foster support for more and better housing.

Air Quality Egg Hacking

My colleagues at the Centre for Digital Media at the Great Northern Way Campus have recently procured an Air Quality Egg and are hoping to explore how they can hack this hardware. We been dreaming up a scenario where we deploy may 10-30 of these around the lower mainland to get realtime measurements of the air quality. For the Centre for Digital Media, we’d love it if we can create a dashboard for the measurements from these eggs, as it would enable residents to compare air quality from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Biking Apps

Since I’m now just throwing ideas out there… (Cause that is what happens on open data day), another idea Councillor Reimer shared involves the newly released bike rack data from the City of Vancouver (which this fine gentleman mapped in very short order). An app that does nothing more than load, locate you, and point you to the direction of the nearest bike rack could be helpful to bikers. But if the location of the user could be anonymously shared with the city… it would be hugely valuable to them as it would provide some insight about where people are when they are looking for bike racks. This could allow the city to deploy its bike rack infrastructure more efficiently and save on (re)installation/moving costs.

And lots, lots more…

Obviously, there is lots more that happens, people network, brainstorm projects of their own, join established projects… or just learn about what is possible. Hopefully these ideas give you some insight into what is possible. That said, if you think you don’t have the right skills, please come anyways… we’ll find you a way to participate.

Presently the City of Montreal just tipped over 100 participants for their open data day. Ottawa regularly has similar participation levels. I confess that I’ve been a little slow in getting the word out, so please do consider coming and… pass the word along!


Again, one can sign up here.

The event will be taking place at City Hall on February 23rd, from 9:30am until 5:30pm.


Uber in Vancouver: Some Thoughts for the Passenger Transportation Board

So last week the B.C. Passenger Transportation Board (PTB) effectively shut down Uber in Vancouver by compelling the rides they arrange must charge a minimum $75 a trip, regardless of distance. Shortly after being announced, twitter lit up as Uber notified its customers of the decision and the hashtag #UberVanLove began directing angry (and deserved) tweets at government officials.

My thoughts on all this are evolving but I think the PTB has made a poor decision and hope that a compromise can be found.

Here’s a long piece explaining why.

Uber is different. Most people think that Uber is simply a new middleman, trying to cut out the current dispatchers (or work with them). This is not true, they are much more than that. As you can read in this Time magazine article, Uber is not just about connecting riders with drivers. For example:

Abyzov says the company has a “science team” working on dispatch algorithms to produce a predictive heat-map that helps local car companies and their drivers better anticipate rider demand. “We’re helping our partners build successful small businesses,”

So let’s be clear. This is about a learning company that is figuring out how to preposition cars in neighborhoods because it can anticipate demand. As far as I know (or have experienced) There is no taxi or town-car company in the lower-mainland that is even thinking that way. And this type of thinking has big implications. In San Francisco, it means the average wait time for an Uber car is 3 minutes.

Think about that for a second (I’m looking at you PTB).

This means that:

  • Efficiency: People are getting around the city much faster – increasing their productivity. For a city trying to compete globally, this matters.
  • Reliable: I’ve had taxi companies not commit to send me a car when I’m not at a fixed address because they assume I’ll hop in a roaming taxi before the one I ordered arrives. Because Uber let’s you rate the taxi, but also lets the taxi rate you, it increases the reliability of both taxis and passengers. This means fewer taxies chasing passengers who aren’t there, and fewer passengers left stranded by untrusting dispatchers.
  • Fewer cars: People are much more likely to get out of their car (or not own one at all) if they know they have reliable alternatives. Public transit and car sharing are important to this, and a highly effective car service, available at one’s finger tips would be a powerful addition to the mix. Speaking of reliable: a 3 minute average is pretty god damn reliable. Certainly more reliable than the taxi experience many receive in Vancouver.
  • Greener: Pre-positioning cars in neighborhoods where you can predict demand means fewer cars trolling for fares. In addition, because they are nearer to their fares, Uber cars are doubly more efficient. This means fewer carbon emissions. Also, more Uber rides means less pressure on downtown parking and, as I mentioned above, possibly fewer cars on the road.
  • Serve more neighborhoods: When you can predict demand it means you’ll better serve those pesky “under-served” suburban neighbourhoods Rather than having everybody chasing fares in the busiest part of town, you can be more strategic about how you deploy your cars.
  • Convient: Using the app is just easier. I can order a taxi in a crowded bar without having to talk to (and thus be misheard) by the dispatcher. As a user, the thing I’ve loved most about Uber is that when you book a car, you get to see where it is. So rather than relying on the dispatcher “assuring” you the car is only 5 minutes away, you can see on the make exactly where it is. (This is a bonus for those with awkward addresses, I’ve actually guided lost drivers to my location when I’ve been in a complicated cul-de-sac).

The other mistake is to assume that Uber is about town cars. Here in Vancouver the cosy oligarchy of taxis companies – and (from what I understand) the complete lack of independent taxis – means that they don’t want to work with Uber. And yet, while I’m an Uber user I’ve actually only used its town-car service once (to try it out), I mostly use Uber for taxis – while traveling on business in Toronto. Again, there are benefits.

  • Foreigner friendly: As someone less familiar with street addresses in Toronto, and totally unaware of taxi phone numbers, Uber locates me and brings a taxi to me. I don’t have to know much about my address. This makes it exceedingly tourist friendly. In addition, drivers are rated… so I can choose not to use poorly rated drivers – a major benefit. Last time I checked, tourism was big business in Vancouver. Wouldn’t it be nice if we made our city even easier to navigate for tourists?
  • Better for independent drivers: While some observers rail that Uber is a “foreign firm” it could be a valuable supplier for independent taxi drivers (were we to have any). As such, it might support a broader taxi driver community, one that was not beholden to one of the four players in our market. That, one would think, would be good for taxi drivers (but admittedly, potentially less good for big four companies who presently can take $522 taxi license the city issues and then resell it to drivers for $250,000-$500,000 per shift. That’s a pretty serious mark up. And while I’m sure it is great for the taxi companies… it is less clear to me how the city government, taxpayer, taxi user, or taxi drivers. Feels like a lot of lost tax revenue, or expensive barrier to entry. Heaven forbid we break up that arrangement. For more on the shady world of the taxi business in Vancouver, I suggest you read this excellent article by Luke Brocki.

The PTB should engage Uber and find a compromise because you know, I know, and everyone knows, that the types of innovations I describe above aren’t going to emerge organically out of the taxi industry in Vancouver (or, in any city for that matter). Kill Uber and you kill any incentive for the taxi industry to engage with the future. And frankly, that’s a pretty crappy outcome for everyone who takes taxis.

But, it gets worse. The PTB needs to know that failing to engage in Uber won’t make this problem go away. Uber is a downright straightforward problem/opportunity to manage. What is the PTB going to do when Hailo, Lyft, or SideCar elects to expand to Vancouver? Will we have to sit back and watch with envy as Torontonians, New Yorkers, San Franciscans, Londoners, Washingtonians (the list goes on and on) and others enjoy these services?

I’m not saying the PTB should accomodate Uber, I’m saying the PTB needs a strategy to accomodate a whole wave of innovators that are going to descend on the transportation business. Uber is just an opportunity to being figuring this out. Sticking your head in the sand isn’t going to make these issues go away. More disruptive alternatives are on the way. You’d better start engaging this stuff today, while we passengers only hate you a little bit.

Vancouverites deserve a world class taxi and town car service. One that innovates and offers world class service. Today we have a company that is trying to do that, and more that are likely on the way. It would be nice if we had a PTB that worked with them rather than against them.

Some Additional Thought and Caveats on this Piece and this Issue.

1. Minister’s Response.

To describe the response by the minister responsible, Mary Polak as disappointing would be an understatement. Given she appoints the PTB and likely has some influence, she washed her hands of the issue so fast it she has little interest understanding what is actually going on. (For those who are upset at the PTB decision, I’d focus your tweets at her – particularly as she has gotten off relatively lightly.). My hope is that her, or someone in her staff, will see this piece and see that this issue won’t be going away, it is going to get bigger.

2. Some Thoughts on Uber

For those who who don’t like Uber and those interested in a little history:

Firstly. Yes, I am aware that Uber founder Travis Kalanick is a both fan of Ayn Rand and a fairly uncompromising person. Personally, I’m not a fan Ayn Rand’s writings. I think her books are terrible and that her understanding of how markets and society work (to say nothing of human relationships) is deeply, deeply flawed and certainly lacks nuance. And while some people use this as a basis to write mean articles about Kalanick I think it is a pretty poor line of attack. While I may disagree with its founders ideology (if that is what it is), I’m much more interested in the company’s impact and business model.

In regards to Kalanick being hardheaded (or other, less flattering descriptors), I’m aware of that too. Of course, the people who judge him are usually those who have not tried to do a start up, much less one that tries to alter a sometimes more than 100 year old industry that does not always benefit consumers (or its drivers). Do I agree with Uber’s approach? Not always. I think they screwed up badly in New York. At the same time, in many cities, I think they have had little choice. The current operators – who, let me remind you, compose a market oligarchy – are not exactly interested in innovation or new entrants. If you are going to try to change the way taxi service is delivered… being hardheaded is probably a job requirement. The fact that some taxi companies go after them is not a sign of them being a bully, it could be a sign that they will make the market place more competitive. Nor do I think that they mobilize their users makes them a “bully.” I find it interesting to contrast Uber with the case of PickupPal, a Canadian company that was equally at odds with similar transportation rules and who also started a massive petition (and ultimately had the law changed – much to the chagrin of bus companies). It’s noteworthy that PickupPal is not portrayed as the bully and is indeed celebrated as the triumph of the consumer over the vested interests of the status quo players.

3. Other Reading

Finally, Karen Fung has a good piece about the complexity of transport policy that I don’t really think makes the case for not letting Uber into the market, but is worth the read.

Also, as I mentioned in the piece, Luke Brocki’s piece, Taxiland, is definitely worth reading.

4. Poorly Formed Tweets

Oh, and I was disappointed to see this tweet by a journalist who I normally find quite thoughtful. A desire for more buses and for services like Uber are hardly mutually exclusive. Indeed, trying to pit the two options against each strikes me as downright counter productive. I’m in favour of all solutions that make increase options and diminish the dependency on car ownership. I’m happy to pay more taxes for better bus service, and at the same time, Uber strikes me as another (low cost) way to spark innovation and increase options.

Is the Internet bringing us together or is it tearing us apart?

The other day the Vancouver Sun – via Simon Fraser University’s Public Square program – asked me to pen a piece answering the questions: Is the Internet bringing us together or is it tearing us apart?

Yesterday, they published the piece.

My short answer?

Trying to unravel whether the Internet is bringing us together or tearing us apart is impossible. It does both. What really matters is how we build generative communities, online and off.

My main point?

That community organizing is both growing and democratizing. On MeetUp alone there are 423 coming events in Vancouver. That’s 423 emergent community leaders, all learning how to mobilize people, whether it is for a party, to teach them how to knit, grow a business or learn how to speak Spanish.

This is pretty exciting.

A secondary point?

Is that it is not all good news. There are lots of communities, online and off, that are not generative. So if we are creating more communities, many of them will also be those we don’t agree with, and that are even destructive.

Check it

It always remains exciting to me what you can squeeze into 500 words. Yesterday, the Sun published the piece here, if you’re interested, please do consider checking it out.

Citizen Surveillance and the Coming Challenge for Public Institutions

The other day I stumbled over this intriguing article which describes how a group of residents in Vancouver have started to surveille the police as they do their work in the downtown eastside, one of the poorest and toughest neighborhoods in Canada. The reason is simple. Many people – particularly those who are marginalized and most vulnerable – simply do not trust the police. The interview with the founder of Vancouver Cop Watch probably sums it up best:

“One of the complaints we have about District 2 is about how the Vancouver police were arresting people and taking them off to other areas and beating them up instead of taking them to a jail,” Allan told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “So what we do is that, when in the Downtown Eastside, whenever we see the police arresting someone, we follow behind them to make sure that the person makes it to the jail.”

In a world where many feel it is hard to hold accountable government in general and police forces specifically, finding alternative means of creating such accountability will be deeply alluring. And people no longer need the funding and coordination of organizations like Witness (which initially focused on getting videocameras into peoples hands in an effort to prevent human rights abuses). Digital video cameras and smart phones coupled with services like youtube now provide this infrastructure for virtually nothing.

This is the surveillance society – predicted and written about by authors like David Brin – and it is driven as much by us, the citizens, as it is by government.

Vancouver Cop Watch is not the first example of this type of activity – I’ve read about people doing this across the United States. What is fascinating is watching the state try to resist and fail miserably. In the US the police have lost key battles in the courts. This after the police arrested people filming them even when while on their own property. And despite the ruling people continue to be arrested for filming the police – a choice I suspect diminishes public confidence in the police and the state.

And it is not just the police getting filmed. Transit workers in Toronto have taken a beating of late as they are filmed asleep on the job. Similarly, a scared passenger filmed an Ottawa bus driver who was aggressive and swearing at an apologizing mentally ill passenger. A few years ago the public in Montreal was outraged as city crews were filmed repairing few potholes and taking long breaks.

The simple fact is, if you are a front line worker – in either the private, but especially, the public sector – there is a good chance that at some point in your career you’re going to be filmed. And even when you are not being filmed, more data is going to be collected about what you do and how you do it.

Part of this reality is that it is going to require a new level of training for front line workers, this will be particularly hard on the police, but they should expect more stories like this one.

I also suspect there will be two reactions to it. Some government services will clam up and try to become more opaque, fearing all public inquiry. Their citizens – armed with cameras – all become potential threats. Over time, it is hard not imagining their legitimacy becoming further and further eroded (I’m thinking of you RCMP) as a video here, and audio clip there, shapes the publics image of the organization. Others will realize that anecdotal and chance views of their operations represents a real risk to their image. Consequently they may strive to be more transparent – sharing more data about their operations and their processes – in an effort to provide the public with greater context. The goal here will be to provide a counter point to any unfortunate incidents, trying to make a single negative anecdotal data point that happened to be filmed part of a larger complex number of data points.

Obviously, I have strong suspicions regarding which strategy will work, and which one won’t, in a democratic society but am confident many will disagree.

Either way, these challenges are going to require adaptation strategies and it won’t be easy for public institutions adverse to both negative publicity and transparency.

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).

Algorithmic Regulation Spreading Across Government?

I was very, very excited to learn that the City of Vancouver is exploring implementing a program started in San Francisco in which “smart” parking meters adjust their price to reflect supply and demand (story is here in the Vancouver Sun).

For those unfamiliar with the program, here is a breakdown. In San Francisco, the city has the goal of ensuring at least one free parking spot is available on every block in the downtown core. As I learned during the San Fran’s presentation at the Code for America summit, such a goal has several important consequences. Specifically, it reduces the likelihood of people double parking, reduces smog and greenhouse gas emissions as people don’t troll for parking as long and because trolling time is reduced, people searching for parking don’t slow down other traffic and buses as they drive around slowly looking for a spot. In short, it has a very helpful impact on traffic more broadly.

So how does it work? The city’s smart parking meters are networked together and constantly assess how many spots on a given block are free. If, at the end of the week, it turns out that all the spaces are frequently in use, the cost of parking on that block is increased by 25 cents. Conversely if many of the spots were free, the price is reduced by 25 cents. Generally, each block finds an equilibrium point where the cost meets the demand but is also able to adjust in reaction to changing trends.

Technologist Tim O’Reilly has referred to these types of automated systems in the government context as “algorithmic regulation” – a phrase I think could become more popular over the coming decade. As software is deployed into more and more systems, the algorithms will be creating market places and resource allocation systems – in effect regulating us. A little over a year ago I said that contrary to what many open data advocates believe, open data will make data political – e.g. that open data wasn’t going to depoliticize public policy and make it purely evidenced base, quite the opposite, it will make the choices around what data we collect more contested (Canadians, think long form census). The same is also – and already – true of the algorithms, the code, that will increasingly regulate our lives. Code is political.

Personally I think the smart parking meter plan is exciting and hope the city will consider it seriously, but be prepared, I’m confident that much like smart electrical meters, an army of naysayers will emerge who simply don’t want a public resource (roads and parking spaces) to be efficiently used.

It’s like the Spirit of the West said: Everything is so political.

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

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

Open Libraries?

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

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

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

Speaking of playing…

Bike Accident Data Keeps Generating Discussion

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

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