From DC to Vancouver, open data is catching onDoors are finally opening to public data

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Cartoon on information wants to be free

Yesterday was a big day for anyone who cares about opening up government, especially when it comes to publicly-owned data.

The Obama administration launched, making taxpayer-funded data available in machine-readable form to the public. While the service currently offers only a limited number of feeds, the plan is to have it grow dramatically in the coming weeks and years. The result will likely be an explosion of mashups, visualizations and innovative ways to analyze and cross-reference the huge stores of data currently in government hands.

It's one of the first steps in Obama's Open Government Initiative, geared to creating "an unprecedented level of openness in government" through transparency, participation and collaboration.

But that wasn't the only big leap forward in public data openness. Here in Vancouver, city council passed a resolution calling on it to open up its data, adopt open standards and give open-source software the same consideration it gives to proprietary software.

It's the brainchild of David Eaves, a good friend (I say that by way of both disclosure and enthusiastic personal endorsement) and a thoughtful proponent of open data. And as he points out, it vaults Vancouver into the forefront of what some call the open movement. (He also notes that, for those skeptical of the interest out there in more openness, the past week's flurry of media coverage provides a welcome rebuttal.)

Why is this a big deal? And why should anyone care?

Well, one reason is a principle: that data is ours. We paid for it, and there's something incongruous about the fact that so much of it is under digital lock and key.

Another reason: as long as we can't get at the raw data, then we're at the mercy of those who interpret it for us - and no matter how much good faith they bring to that task, they and their employers have their own agendas: some ideological, some bureaucratic, some partisan. We have no way of doublechecking their results, methodology or framing. And we have no say in what questions they're investigating in the first place. Without open data, we don't have the transparency that a democracy demands to allow us to make meaningful, informed choices.

And the third reason: free access to data means more and better ways to use it, interpret it and add value to it. That's one of the beauties of what we used to call Web 2.0: open data and open standards combine with easy-to-use tools, dramatically broadening the community of people who can dream up cool new applications with publicly-available data.

This isn't just about coders, although there are no doubt plenty of them ready and eager to dive in as soon as the first dataset goes live. (For one thing, "programming" is increasingly accessible to non-coders, thanks to visual tools like Yahoo! Pipes. For another, the results can be fantastically useful.) This is about all of us.

Because those applications, here and in the U.S., are going to do everything from finding new, engaging ways to present dry but important information... to surfacing surprising results that challenge conventional wisdom (and, perhaps, government claims)... to enabling commercially-viable products and services (some based on that open data, others informed by it), generating jobs and economic growth.

Given all of that, it's fitting that I spent yesterday in Calgary, talking to some of the folks there who have made the city one of the most interesting Canadian innovators in engaging its citizens through social media. Their YouTube channel, Facebook page on youth programs and city core revitalization blog are all well worth checking out. The initiative that struck me the most, though, was the city's actively conversational Twitter feed, with swift, useful and personable responses to comments and questions from everyday people. It's a neighbourhood bulletin board crossed with ComcastCares.

Here's the text of yesterday's Vancouver motion, presented by Councillor Andrea Reimer and seconded by Councillor Geoff Meggs (both also friends):

WHEREAS the City of Vancouver is committed to bringing the community into City Hall by engaging citizens, and soliciting their ideas, input and creative energy;

WHEREAS municipalities across Canada have an opportunity to dramatically lower their costs by collectively sharing and supporting software they use and create;

WHEREAS the total value of public data is maximized when provided for free or where necessary only a minimal cost of distribution;

WHEREAS when data is shared freely, citizens are enabled to use and re-purpose it to help create a more economically vibrant and environmentally sustainable city;

WHEREAS Vancouver needs to look for opportunities for creating economic activity and partnership with the creative tech sector;

WHEREAS the adoption of open standards improves transparency, access to city information by citizens and businesses and improved coordination and efficiencies across municipal boundaries and with federal and provincial partners;

WHEREAS the Integrated Cadastral Information Society (ICIS) is a not-for-profit society created as a partnership between local government, provincial government and major utility companies in British Columbia to share and integrate spatial data to which 88% of BC local governments are members but Vancouver is not;

WHEREAS digital innovation can enhance citizen communications, support the brand of the city as creative and innovative, improve service delivery, support citizens to self-organize and solve their own problems, and create a stronger sense of civic engagement, community, and pride;

WHEREAS the City of Vancouver has incredible resources of data and information, and has recently been recognized as one of the Best City Archives in the World by a noted scholar in an important journal.

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED THAT the City of Vancouver endorses the principles of:

  • Open and Accessible Data - the City of Vancouver will freely share with citizens, businesses and other jurisdictions the greatest amount of data possible while respecting privacy and security concerns;
  • Open Standards - the City of Vancouver will move as quickly as possible to adopt prevailing open standards for data, documents, maps, and other formats of media;
  • Open Source Software - the City of Vancouver, when replacing existing software or considering new applications, will place open source software on an equal footing with commercial systems during procurement cycles; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT in pursuit of open data the City of Vancouver will:

  • Identify immediate opportunities to distribute more of its data;
  • Index, publish and syndicate its data to the internet using prevailing open standards, interfaces and formats;
  • Develop appropriate agreements to share its data with the Integrated Cadastral Information Society (ICIS) and encourage the ICIS to in turn share its data with the public at large
  • Develop a plan to digitize and freely distribute suitable archival data to the public;
  • Ensure that data supplied to the City by third parties (developers, contractors, consultants) are unlicensed, in a prevailing open standard format, and not copyrighted except if otherwise prevented by legal considerations;
  • License any software applications developed by the City of Vancouver such that they may be used by other municipalities, businesses, and the public without restriction.

BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED THAT the City Manager be tasked with developing an action plan for implementation of the above.


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