Vancouver’s Open City Initiative

Vancouver’s announcement earlier this summer that the city would open its data created quite a buzz on blogs and podcasts around the world.

Photo from Vancouver Transit Camp by Jason Vanderhill on Flickr

Photo from Vancouver Transit Camp by Jason Vanderhill on Flickr

What is involved in opening a municipality’s data to the public? The motion passed by Vancouver city council this May includes three simple components:

  • open data
  • Any data that the city collects, from current zoning applications to the library catalogue, should be made publicly accessible unless it impacts individual privacy.

  • open standards
  • While plenty of public documents and data have long been publicly available, open standards will improve its accessibility and usefulness.

  • open source
  • City-made software will be licensed as open-source; procurement decisions will consider open source software.

    According to public policy consultant David Eaves, Vancouver is among the first cities to formally open public data, but other municipalities like TorontoCalgary and San Francisco are moving in the same direction. The federal government of the USA has already shown the way by sharing datasets through data.gov.

    Once data is available, innovative programmers can and will build all kinds of applications that make people’s lives easier or more interesting. One example already reviewed on Planning Pool is EveryBlock, which incorporates municipal data like building permits and restaurant inspections into a news feed localized at the block level. Other apps could remind residents to take out their garbage or direct thirsty pedestrians to the nearest public water fountain.

    In an influential lecture entitled Building a City That Thinks Like the Web Mozilla’s Mark Surman described how openness and participation brought rapid innovations to the internet, enhancing its usability. He predicts that similar leaps in usability and engagement could result from opening access to cities’ data. Vancouver city councilor Andrea Reimer likewise hopes that opening municipal data heralds nothing less than an impending culture shift around public engagement in civic life.

    Given bureaucratic tendencies to silo information within departments, making public data freely available on the internet is bound to improve access for city staff as well as for the public. Municipalities can further capitalize on public access and open data formats to crowdsource data collection, which could be particularly effective for reporting “bugs” in the city, like burnt-out street lights. FixMyStreet is an example from the United Kingdom which allows citizens to report minor problems to their local authority.

    Municipal efficiency will also be impacted by the transferability of software – as more municipalities adopt open standards, they will be able to take advantage of open-source software originally designed for Vancouver and vice versa.

    If you are curious to learn more about Vancouver’s Open City initiative, you can read the full text of the motion to council here. You can suggest apps that should be created with Vancouver’s data at the Vancouver Data Google Group. Finally, techincal types may be curious about the uses of Vancouver data under consideration by a local software company.

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