Open Data - What It Is and Why You Want It

Posted May 26, 2011
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Did you see The Social Network movie? Do you remember that scene in which there is a "hackathon" where eager students do a random hacking assignment to score an internship with Mark Zuckerburg's Facebook? Well, the City of Calgary has the opportunity to do that on a much larger scale. Except without the drinking. Or the internship. The more I think of it, what the City has the opportunity to do bares little resemblence to that scene, except for the most important part: like Mark, the City can tap the potential of geeks at little expense.

Now I don't mean 'geeks' in any kind of deregatory sense. I mean in it the so-passionate-about-a-specific-area-of-expertise-you-dedicate-disgusting-amounts-of-time-to-it-and-struggle-to-hold-conversations-with-regular-people-because-your-knowledge-is-so-intense-in-the-awesomest-way-possible sense. You know what I'm talking about. Chances are you are a geek too (you are at this site after all!). I think all of us probably have an unhealthy dedication to something that sets us apart, whether we geek out to The Social Network style computer hacking, environmental sustainability, business management, geological formations, blog writing, astronomy, chinchilla manicuring, or bananas. I realize some of those examples aren't quite like the others, but the point is that we are all specialists and we all bring something to the table. I'm certain someone, somewhere, is looking to manicure a chinchilla.


Setting Calgarians Loose On Calgary

So, if we're all geeks, how can the City of Calgary set us loose for the benefit of our fair burg? Well, it's called 'open data'. If you haven't heard of it before, you're going to hear a lot about soon enough, starting now. Open data is the release of information that people are allowed to freely browse and use in an unrestricted, or somewhat-unrestricted, manner. If you read this far and found the concept of open data completely underwhelming, it's because you haven't stopped to think about it yet. Governments collect and manage a lot of data. So much so that I chose to bold the word. Things like road closures, bus schedules, soccer field bookings, property values, food safety inspections, the list goes on and on. If the City owns a chinchilla, they have data on everything there is to know about it. His name is Joey. At least it would be if there was one and I was in charge. If you're still not excited about having access to this data, try dreaming up some practical applications of its use: a daily email of the latest road closures, a mobile app for bus times, a website to find available soccer fields, analysis of what neighbourhoods are rising in property values relative to others for investment, Open Table or Urban Spoon showing food safety grades of restaurants, etc. My ideas are small potatoes compared to what could be dreamt up as data is made available and brighter people start using it.

Now, there is no Facebook internship to win if you use this data to a better end than your contemporaries, so why would any one bother? Well, if the data is open and unrestricted, there's absolutely no reason to not make a profit from wielding the data into a service Calgarians are willing to pay for. But many will also volunteer their time to non-profit applications of the data for the same reason Wikipedia isn't empty. We are geeks, and when we find ourselves with a little time and have stumbled upon something we're passionate about, we might just contribute. The level at which we tend to contribute increases as barriers are removed and the process is made easier. So as data becomes more available and accessible from the City of Calgary, our use of it will explode. Even though Calgary hasn't yet launched an open data resource, there are already die-hards doing great things with what is available. Take Gordon McDowell's tapping of City Council feeds to create a robust online archive of our municipal government in action (as explained through his super genius baby):


Gordon McDowell, who I haven't yet had the pleasure of meeting, is a videographer and programmer geek - which I of course mean in the most nicest non-deregatory way - he's a specialist. He's also a prime example of why all of us should want open data, even if few of us will use it. All of us are busy people with demanding lives, but for those of us who won't get around to using open data should it be come available, there will be the few that do, and we want to make sure we give them that opportunity. Gordon shares his specific genius to demonstrate how the city can provide their own archived council video for next to no cost, a cheap technical solution our municipal government likely wouldn't have stumbled on without his expertise. Not only can great new solutions be imagined from tapping Calgary's data, but as Gordon's council video example shows us, our municipal government can be opened up and made far more accessible to all Calgarians.


A Cost Effective Way Of Doing The Impossible

Open data does the impossible - it creates open governments and engages citizens. It is a tool in creating better government and it's ridiculously cost effective as well. A little money needs to be invested to make Calgary's data available online in a sortable and parsible way, but the result is that instead of only city council and some public servants looking at the books, all Calgarians would be encouraged to. That's right, every geek out there, whether a chinchilla expert or computer scientist, could poke around and identify new and better solutions to the city's problems that may otherwise have been missed. Someone may identify a more cost effective way to deliver the city's website, or to manicure Joey the chinchilla. Instead of complaining about the actions of city council, you could apply your knowledge to helping them do a better job. Or if you'd still rather just complain, at the very least supporting open data allows other Calgarians the opportunity to help our city do better.

Open data is already happening around us. Edmonton,Vancouver, Toronto and many other jurisdictions have begun opening their data. Even the federal government is stepping up to the plate, though they are working out some ideological issues with the word 'open'. It's time to use technology to take government forward.