All posts tagged Open Data

Why Write About Technology?

Why write about technology? Personally, I wonder how anyone could give up an opportunity to write about a process that is radically defining the way in which we interact with and define each other. As this blog has documented, technology is as much about communication as it is definitions. From innovation management software to open government data policy, the last decade has witnessed a de facto re-parsing of our collective reality. If the global economic recession of 2008 could be said to have been the unofficial funeral procession for the old wireless infrastructure, this new decade is the birth of a community that values entirely different things, while still retaining its essential humanity. Life may never truly change, but the way in which we choose to perceive it does.

We are inundated with unprecedented amounts of data available in an instantaneous format. Many of our social networks and basic personality preferences are now part of a larger searchable database; in essence, we all have the equivalent of personality dossiers online for virtually anyone to view. In first world countries, our work is becoming increasingly abstract and mutable. Yet, as we race to come together, we are simultaneously pulling apart, seeking to differentiate ourselves on an increasingly open and crowded global stage.

It is an era when we have forsaken individual nationality as being for callow rubes, in favor of embracing a ‘global’ identity. The American ideal of the ‘individual’ has been co-opted by branding, to the point where true mavericks are now considered to be crazy. We are living in a climate that is increasingly unpredictable, on a fuel system that is going to run out, in a political era which could either embrace a progressive approach or fall back to putting people’s heads on stakes.

Technology gives us an unprecedented global overview, allowing us to watch these events unfold in real-time. If you’re reading this, then you’re part of the process. As members of this society, we have a collective responsibility to try to create the conditions in which we want to live. That’s why I’ve chosen to write about technology. Stay tuned.

Let’s Talk: Ottawa Open Data with the founders of Hackfest

How can citizens motivate their government into funding official open data portals? Ask Edward Ocampo-Gooding, Maribeth Baker and Daniel Beauchamp, the founders of the Ottawa Open Data Hackfest. In April of 2010, the Hackfest invited the city’s programmers and designers to submit apps that showcased how technology could quickly parse the city’s data into a usable and easily accessible form. The following month, Ottawa’s city council passed legislation authorizing funding for an official open data portal. Over the yowling gaps of a spotty Skype connection, Edward, Maribeth and I talked about the initial organizational process and subsequent success of the Hackfest.

JI: What was the inspiration to start the Hackfest?
EOG: The Hackfest started out of two different things coming together at the right time. Daniel and I were part of this language called RMI and this user group that meets up every month. I’ve always wanted the meetings to include folks from other interests. We never end up hanging out with the cool people in design and all the other people in the Blackberry groups and the Flash groups and PHP. There’s not a good mix, especially in Ottawa where everything tends to be really silo. You’re only hanging out with the same folks. We thought, we need some kind of excuse to have this really bitching party. And it would be great if the work we were doing was really meaningful. Software developers tend to make software no matter what, and if you don’t give them something to strive towards, you end up with a lot of “you owe me a beer” apps.

MB: I met this CIO of Edmonton. I asked him, “Are you doing anything with open data in Edmonton?” They were six months ahead of us. He said, “I’m meeting in the city this week, we should support you.” We put out a Twitter message to find out who was doing stuff already. There was a change camp in 2009. We started building up a network of people who were doing things.

EOG: Maribeth had planted this idea of open data in my head. We looked at this change camp. We hear a lot about these events where people get together, talk, feel good, but nothing really gets done. We have this concept, open data, you mention it to any software developer or designer or artist—they aren’t into technology at all, but they like the concept. I showed up at this Ottawa city subcommittee meeting and was really energetic. I got them excited about citizens caring about open data. The councilors really liked that because it showed that somebody actually cared. We got some press action happening after that.

JI: Do you think the success of open data primarily hinges on fostering connectivity and getting people in the same space?
EOG: Don’t use mailing lists, because nobody likes them. They’re really passive; the ratio sucks. With Twitter, it lets you have that one on one conversation. We discovered pretty quickly that there is a right way and a wrong way to do Twitter. The wrong way is to be really passive and the right way is to treat Twitter like a phone. If you apply the same principles that your mom teachers you when you’re four to make friends then Twitter’s awesome. Every time someone makes the effort to say “I’m going to follow what you say,” you write them back and say “thanks.” Plus, even better, give them an action item: give them something to do, and something to own. They’ll instantly end up being one of your volunteers to your event.

EOG: Sometimes we get some flack because we’re focused on open data and some other folks are like “You’re focusing on the technology, you should be focusing on the community, and the people.” And I think that there are some misconstrued assumptions there. Open data by itself is totally boring and useless. You really need to make other applications that ultimately end up affecting people’s lives in a good way, like the garbage scheduling application [on the Hackfest website]. Data and technology are just links between people. The Hackfest wouldn’t have been what it was if the city had just said, “Here it is, you got it.” It was a success because we had all these developers and designers, and they were prototyping within four hours. We had like 20 apps. The CIO and the councilors were excited and said this was fundamentally a great idea.

MB: The CIO was the last to leave the Hackfest. He was sitting around, just taking notes.

For more information about Ottawa Open Data Hackfest, please visit www.opendataottawa.ca.

A Common Civic Language: Bristol’s Open Data Project

Although many governments around the globe have begun to host open data portals for their citizens, the United Kingdom city of Bristol’s recently launched portal, B-Open, is an intriguing association between a media development company and the city. The company, iShed, has put up money to encourage developers to write programs for them that utilize and display city data. This partnership is primarily motivated by the desire to create environmentally beneficial programs that tackle issues of climate change and other so-called “green” initiatives.

B-Open describes its primary mission as one of ‘connectivity.’ What is particularly fascinating about B-Open’s stated goals is in the method in which it could potentially forge a connection between government, citizens, and private commerce. Most open data portals are still in their infancy, and many would argue that this is the most fertile time for the development of a common civic language. While previous generations of citizens have interacted with their government through either the voting polls or direct contact with their representatives, forming a coalition that uses accurate government data to make policy decisions motivated by citizens with funding from private corporations may usher in a new realm of effective problem solving. The goals of the website include creating programs that would enable every interested Bristol citizen to have a computer, and further exploring the potential benefits of telemedicine.

Perhaps what politics lacks in its current incarnation is a direct connection between civic concerns and the private capital to fund them. While the dangers of having a corporate owned government are obvious, the benefits of having a government that acts directly and effectively to solve civic concerns with the help of industry may outweigh the risks. The difficulty comes in regulating the line between needed civic improvements and companies that purposefully exploit their power to selfishly achieve their goals. The barometer may be how many people are impacted by proposed initiatives. Those initiatives that have a positive impact on the majority of the population should flourish.

Incentives to help develop tools to address climate change benefit everyone, including private industry. Developing more efficient processes by using a dedicated and motivated pool of labor, such as the local Bristol developers, keeps costs relatively low but provides for much higher results, boosting productivity and creating greater communication and connectivity between interested parties. Ultimately, these interested parties must regulate their own affairs, and not let any one person or company’s individual agenda dominate.

Ottawa to Consider Open Data Portal

Ottawa Open Data

During 2010, the city of Ottawa made significant strides in launching an open data portal. Open data is a concept wherein information about the public collected by the government should be easily accessible to the public, as long as that information does not compromise privacy, or is otherwise proprietary. In many other countries, including the United States, open data is provided to the citizens through online portals which allow them to quickly download and manipulate the data. Useful open data is generally presented in a format that allows users to find exactly what they need without having to spend a great deal of time wading through reports. As an example, applications have been developed to display a listing of a city’s museums and their operating hours.

Several other Canadian cities, including Vancouver and Toronto, have also been working on launching official open data portals. Canada as a whole lacks an open data portal. Part of the difficulty for Canada specifically is that public information is currently available, but for a fee. A listing of national postal codes, for example, is available for a fee of several thousand dollars. Enormous citizen interest has begun to prompt cities, and even the national government, to experiment with launching free open data portals.

A motion was introduced in Ottawa’s city council in October of 2008 to officially review the open data policy, leading to a debate that lasted for several years. On May 12, 2010, Ottawa’s city council voted to adopt an open data policy, prompting the city to tentatively launch an open data portal (www.ottawa.ca/online_services/opendata/info/index_en.html). As of June 2010, the public information available on the site is not comprehensive, featuring information mainly about parks and recreational facilities, such as tennis courts. The data is difficult to manipulate, and the official open data portal is only an adjunct of the city’s larger home page.

However, significant progress has been made. A citizen group known as the Open Data Ottawa Hackfest held a conference in April of 2010 which invited open source developers and designers to submit applications that could quickly sort through and effectively display municipal data. Although the conference had no official ties to Ottawa’s open data portal, a few weeks later the city began to debate the concept of holding an officially sponsored contest where it would invite developers and designers to submit open data applications for use on smartphones. In May, the city approved a measure to hold a contest in the fall of 2010, with cash prizes totaling $50,000.

If the success rate of other open data portals in other cities is any indication, Ottawa may soon have a fully accessible open data portal developed in part by its citizenry.

OpenPlans.org – engaging communities through journalism and open source software

OpenPlans.org is a website that promotes the use of technology to effectively and rapidly communicate civic needs with community leaders on both a local, regional, and national level. The website uses journalism, videos, and open source software to help community groups organize, share information, compile data, and create news releases. Specifically, sites such as Fix City Bike Racks allows bike riders in New York City to quickly identify those sites that need attention by either uploading a photo of the bike rack, using prearranged Twitter code, or visiting the web site directly and clicking on a map.

OpenPlans is an advocate of the concept of open data provided by open government. The Open311 initiative has been developed using the cities of San Francisco and Washington D.C. to understand what citizens need from their government, and how the government can more easily provide that information to them. This initiative spawned the ‘Apps for Democracy’ contest, which encouraged citizens of Washington D.C. to come up with ideas about how to make city services more accessible and useful for cash prizes. These ideas were then translated by software developers into useable software applications. The winning apps tended to focus on highlighting sections of the city that required repair, such as potholes, by taking camera-phone photographs of them, much like the Fix City Bike Racks website.

OpenPlans ‘Streetsblog’ is a compendium of local blogs focusing primarily on issues of transportation. As a journalistic enterprise, Streetsblog has had a surprisingly effective impact on policy, helping to mobilize government leaders into taking action on putting in more pedestrian and bicycle friendly pathways throughout urban areas. GothamSchools is a blog dedicated to issues of public education in New York City. GothamSchools has helped interested New Yorkers connect and begin implementing changes to their public school curriculum. OpenPlans has also helped to launch a suite of open source software known as ‘OpenGeo.’ OpenGeo creates course material from a global community of teachers, and also offers training for those who do not have extensive experience using the software.

Governments can benefit from OpenPlans considerable roster of projects by embracing the concept that sharing data and forming networks of interested and motivated participants is the best and most cost-effective way of solving civic problems. By working in direct response to clearly articulated citizen needs, software developers can quickly create programming that is useful and essential. More importantly, sharing data allows for a much more efficient use of resources. Governments can allocate exactly the amount of funding needed for a particular project because the raw data is available for more accurate estimation. Using open data, similar civic projects that may or may not be aware of each other can be grouped more effectively, saving both money and time.

Open Data & Open Government

Open data is an online resource comprised of all publicly available documents produced by the local, regional, or national government. To qualify as ‘open,’ the data must be in a format that is non-exclusive or subject to copyright, is taken directly from a source and is not a composite of other research, and does not compromise valid privacy concerns. The concept of open governments providing open data is a relatively new phenomenon that has been significantly advanced by the internet. However, some national governments have different legal definitions of what proprietary information is.

Open data is an incredibly valuable and arguably necessary resource in the age of information, primarily because it helps a democracy accurately monitor itself. The United States federal government’s website data.gov is a repository of publicly available documents, reports, and other officially gathered information. The same is true of the United Kingdom’s website, data.gov.uk. Both of these websites have significantly aided the citizenry of each country by allowing individuals to quickly access and view information that affects their day to day activities and, correspondingly, their quality of life.

Additionally, open data is a great aid to a nation’s economy. Every ten years the United States conducts a census of its population, and subsequently uses this data to fund schools, infrastructure projects, and other public projects. The amount of data the census collects is miniscule compared to the literally thousands of reports and other forms of information available through open data. Citizens, city planners, parents and other members of society can make much better use of their available economic resources when they are able to easily access information that can help them accurately strategize or budget.

Although several cities in Canada are beginning to experiment with the idea of providing open data, the nation as a whole lacks a cohesive open data resource. While the Canadian government has developed a few prototypes for a federal open data source, no firm date has been set for a launch, prompting some citizens to offer solutions of their own.

The founders of the website www.datadotgc.ca have launched a campaign to convince their government to authorize all Canadian ministries to open their files and release data that could be useful to the public. Individuals who have identified preexisting open data websites on the internet are encouraged to submit these URL addresses to the datadotgc administrators in an effort to gradually form a comprehensive website. So far, the website features data from roughly half a dozen government ministries, including the Ministry of Natural Resources, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Agri-Food. The majority of Canadian ministries provides no data to the website, although the founders are hopeful that their continued efforts will add more information.