Imagine a society in which the figures, facts and records that governments accumulate are publicly available and free to use by citizens, civil society and business. This – and the potential for greater civic involvement in politics it promises – is what the open data movement wants to see, and governments across Canada are embracing it.
By one count, there are now some 54 Canadian open data portals online, in addition to the federal government’s open data initiative, data.gc.ca. Cities like Vancouver, Ottawa, Edmonton and Toronto have dedicated themselves to the sharing of data. Combined with several provinces and many federal agencies, the result is some thousands of datasets that have been released to the public in the last handful of years.
Accordingly, data can be found from just about any government portfolio. A quick survey reveals municipalities that publish real-time feeds on the location of transit vehicles, maps of the range of Caribou herds published by the Province of Alberta, tallies of greenhouse gas emissions reported by the Ontario government and a federal list of registered lobbyists.
It’s a cornucopia of ones and zeroes. For the most part, the data is available as spreadsheets, via programming interfaces or as geographic files – formats that may require the right tools or skills to be useful, but have the benefit of being machine-readable and thus easier to plug into apps, maps, visualizations and research.
Groups across the country are looking to open data to provide services and analysis, and to guide decision-making. Transit advocates are asking how real-time transit data can be used to analyze service reliability. Budgets are being translated into educational and interactive visualizations. Apps are being built to make it easier to find all manner of things, from bike share locations to housing infractions. Some of these topics arose at the recent Open Data Day in Toronto, one of many events across the country, where participants tackled how open data might be harnessed to address issues of civic importance.
But perhaps most importantly, pulling back the curtains on what governments do track opens up conversations about what we don’t track and don’t share. Here is one example: maps of bike racks may be easy to come by, but cyclists in many Ontario communities are struggling to convince authorities that getting doored counts as a collision and should be tracked by police. Collision data, even where released openly, would be incomplete in the eyes of many because of this blind spot. There has to be data before it can be shared.
Open data is sometimes trumpeted as a politics-as-neutral solution to politics-as-usual, owing to the supposed objectivity of data. In reality, how data is prepared, released, prioritized and maintained shapes its meaning and usefulness. Provincially and federally, we have already seen that governments can champion open data on one hand while changing public reporting requirements or eliminating and curtailing established public data sets on the other.
With that acknowledgement, open data doesn’t just serve to illuminate the goings-on of government and provide opportunities to work with government information. The “what, where, when, why and how” of open data is itself political, and an important vector for public participation. Many open data enthusiasts can point to datasets and programs in their communities that would not exist freely, completely or machine-readably if they hadn’t raised their voice and asked for them.
Ultimately, the promise of open data will be proven by the citizens, communities and innovators that get involved with data and share their results – and their needs – with the public and providers alike.
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