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Column: The need for open data in our city

While the Federation of Canadian Municipalities were in town, I helped give a series of tours of an affordable housing project. There were mayors, city councillors, and city administrators who came though, looked around and asked a lot of questions. Most had to do with funding streams but on the last tour the questions were focused around problems of homelessness in Saskatoon. I was going to give my thoughts but I asked them, “do any of your jurisdictions study root issues of social issues?” None of them did.

Despite the excellent work that City has done going back 36 years with the publication of our Neighbourhood Profiles, we have a limited understanding of many problems in Saskatoon because we don’t collect or have access of the data we need to really understand the issues. We aren’t alone. Government’s around the world make all sorts of decisions without fully understanding the consequences of their decision because of a lack of data. One example is the United Kingdom’s attempt to regulate fishing in the English Channel. According to political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon’s book “The Ingenuity Gap”, scientists in England are unable to list all of the species of fish in the channel but are expected to manage the fishery. How can you solve a problem if you don’t understand it?

There is a movement growing around the world called Open Data. It is the idea that a lot of government data should be made available to the public so we can not only hold the government accountable but also so we can make better commercial and societal decisions. The idea has been around for a long time but picked up with the adoption of the internet. One of the launching off points was in 2004 when the Ministers of Science of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development signed a declaration calling for all publicly funded archive data to be made publicly available. It’s based on the idea that there is a lot of information out there but we don’t have access to it.

Perhaps the biggest implementation of Open Data is the U.S. government project called Data.gov. It’s purpose is to make available U.S. government data to anyone in a format that can be used. Some department contribute more data than others. As you would expect, departments like the Environmental Protection Agency submit a lot of high quality data sets while the Department of Defense offers up very little. Even the Railroad Retirement Board is submitting data to the project. The wide range of data is fascinating. There is real time data on airline departure and arrival time, lists of failed banks, lists of closed government data centers, marriage rates in the Armed Forces and even the data behind a tire rating system.

Canada is getting on the Open Data bandwagon as well. Tony Clement started us down the path towards being more open and transparent with data.gc.ca which already has over 12,000 datasets including over 8,000 from StatsCan and another 3200 from Agriculture Canada. Despite the progress, it’s an uphill battle as witnessed by Canada Post’s recent lawsuit saying that a collection of postal codes violates it’s copyright.

Locally municipalities started opening up their data as well. Several municipalities have online crime maps, the Edmonton Police Service one of the best implementations of the idea. It allows you to see a crime breakdown on a map of a neighbourhood for time periods up to the last 60 days. The stated reason is accountability and it achieves that but that data also puts valuable information in the hands of citizens. If I know that cars are being stolen on my block, I am going to be much more aware of the people I see acting suspiciously. If I know there are assaults happening on a route I walk, I can avoid the area.

That’s not all, with open data and the right tools, you can start to layer on other data bits and see what factors like unemployment, elementary classroom sizes, types of businesses, or even the impact of different kinds of street lighting do to make the problem better or worse. It’s not the first data set that gives the answers, it’s multiple layers of data that start to make the picture clearer. Once we start to understand the problem, we can start to identify the solutions.

Open Data is a lot easier to believe in than implement. Not only do you have to have the right data but you need it in a format that is machine readable and portable. That’s a significant technological hurdle in organizations that use custom written software. The payoff however of better decisions by policy makers and business leaders and a more engaged and educated populace could be well worth the cost.

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