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Vancouver’s Early Adoption of Open Government is Good for Civil Society

July 31, 2009

If transportation is the lifeblood of a city, data policy is its neural pathway. Kudos to the City of Vancouver, whose council passed a motion to become an open city last May. VanChange Camp participants were abuzz with the news, and a main topic of discussion at the conference was centered around how open government could work, what it would look like, feel like and so forth..

The Deliverable

What is open government? Vancouver has elected to open up all of its real data to the public, and has passed a motion to make all of its applications open source.

What can a Civil Society get from Open Government?
When developers get to work with the real data, the applications they are creating or innovating are then based on actual real world data, instead of sandbox development databases. Developers can build iterative applications that they may be tested and developed before the go-live stage.

This is an intelligent policy for many reasons, chiefly because invites the community, with fresh and pertinent ideas, into city hall. Operating costs could decrease as communities build and share software. Empowered citizens become adept at solving collective problems. The city can be branded as a place where services are active and current, and solutions are readily produced; a good place to do business.

What are the Challenges?

Multi-platform, Multi needs Go-live Capability

A developer told me that many of his colleagues are cautious about making applications for governments, because the programs are usually required to work as complete alpha versions for everyone, including people with disabilities, ESL and so forth. There may need to be more flexibility on this point as applications are continually improved.

Legacy Information
I predict that the city will not have to go very far back to encounter legacy information stored on various, difficult to parse formats like PDF and DOC files. Much of that old information is still very useful for determining trends over time.

Is it Worth it?
I believe that the greater citizen participation is in society design is, using the real apparatus of state keeping,, the more inclusive, nimble and responsive society will be. After all, citizens are the eyes on the ground that see what their areas need; the local experts.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. corsullivan permalink*
    August 1, 2009 11:54 am

    This sounds like a worthwhile experiment, at the very least. In my ignorance, however, I find it hard to get a clear idea of how much things will actually change. What kinds of data is the city planning to make available? What implications do you see outside the rarefied world of software development? If I’m understanding correctly, this sounds like freedom of information on a grand scale, which might turn out to be a gold mine for journalists (among others). But what are the implications for privacy and security?

    Also, after following your links the curmudgeonly scientist in me feels compelled to point out that some of the people discussing this initiative seem not to realise that “data” is a plural. The singular, of course, is “datum”. Grr.

    • nmboudin permalink
      August 1, 2009 8:33 pm

      Hi Cor,

      I do not know exactly the kinds of data that would be made available. I imagine there will be all sorts, barring of course, individuals’ private information.

      One of the things the City is hoping for is that by this will help enable a greater range of self-service on the web, decreasing municipal costs and freeing city workers to provide better services.

      In terms of business development, I can think of an example in my job, where the developers in my office wanted some kind of Air Quality index, in easily parsed, comma separated values in XML, so that they could create a web service where clients could see air quality trends in various sub-areas of Metro Vancouver. After a great deal of digging, all I could find were PDFs of data, with big gaps between geographic areas.

      All the legacy data would have to be hand entered, and upcoming data would only come out annually. Whereas an open data standard would permit our sites to refresh on an automatic schedule, showing the newest information as it is posted. This would enable a business to create value. With this kind of flexibility, I could predict a migration of technology-based companies coming to the city.

      The rarified software development world, as you say, would no doubt be direct beneficiaries of this, but so would ordinary people who use the web to find information. If a community’s issues are reflected accurately, then citizens can come to their representatives with accurate information, and know exactly where there has been waste, or where resources need to be expended. This is part of transparency in government.

      As for data vs. datum, though I could not find the example you were referring to, but I share your curmudgeonly angst. The editor in me sees misused apostrophes all around, though I’m sure I am the only one who cares.

      • corsullivan permalink*
        August 10, 2009 1:50 pm

        Thanks, belatedly, for the clarification. It will be interesting to see how companies and citizens use the data in the coming months and years, and what problems and controversies (inevitably) emerge.

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