The article below was written by Ryan Melanson:
City Council is set to revisit the idea of establishing an open data policy for municipal information at Monday night’s meeting, with Coun. Greg Norton pushing a motion that will define clear guidelines on what city data should be released, when it should be done and by what standards.
Open data, as Norton’s motions describes it, refers to the free publishing of city information, in accessible and machine-readable formats, without any restrictions on use.
This means anything from geographic data like transit routes and stops, financial information dealing with the spending of public money, where steps have recently been taken around posting salaries and funding details to external agencies, or more specific, obscure data like a percentage of people who don’t pay their water bill on time, or police traffic enforcement statistics. The possibilities are endless, and may even depend on what people want to see or use, Norton said.
The city already does a fair job in terms of having information available, Norton said, but it’s not always easy to retrieve, buried in archives or requiring other steps.
“This will mean we’re not layering all our information in red tape for the folks who want to use it to create solutions to societal or governmental issues.”
While increased transparency is key, Norton said the problem-solving and innovation possibilities are a kicker that gets him excited.
Shawn Peterson, an award winning developer and ICT worker at T4G in Saint John, said having raw data in the right open formats creates opportunities for the private sector to come up with solutions in a way governments simply don’t have the time or resources for.
Peterson’s Propertize.ca mines data from the provincial government to help users compare their property tax assessments with others nearby. He took government data, analyzed it and developed it into a useful application with money-making potential.
Those are the possibilities with open data, new solutions and job creation, he said.
“You see governments throwing money at this and that, that’s the worst thing you can do. How about you start putting data out there, and then someone can create a business based off that, how cool would that be?”
Norton pointed to HotSpot Parking Inc., led by Fredericton business student Phillip Curley, who created a mobile parking payment system with information from the city’s traffic department. The company is expected to test in Saint John soon.
“He created an app and a company using that data he mined from the municipality,” Norton said.
He added these possibilities could be increased further if the province’s three major cities could work to create open-data pools under the same consistent standards. Similar steps have been taken between municipalities in Ontario.
“Because that increases the usability of the information we’re going to disclose to the public and to the people who want to access and mine it.”
With increased co-operation between Saint John, Moncton and Fredericton a new priority, a new budget looming, and a bustling tech sector ready to jump at sets of raw data and their possible uses, the time is right to draft a true policy, Norton said.
“There’s no downside to this,” Peterson added, noting so much data is already in existence, just simply not available, or only available in a hard-to-find PDF files, useless to developers.
“The worst case scenario is the city releases some data sets and nobody uses it.”
Norton said if his motion passes, a priority for him will be ensuring any data policy is implemented correctly, with sets released consistently and in a timely manner.
“I’ll be pushing for strict implementation guidelines, so that once this information is available, it’s not antiquated by the time we post it,” he said, referencing large amounts of dated information on department sections of the city’s website.
“If we do it right we could release data sets that other cities aren’t, and do it in a way that’s useful and improves openness and transparency.
Councillor Norton’s motion is below:
Open Data Policy: October 28, 2013
Mayor Mel Norton and Members of Common Council
Your Worship and Councillors:
Subject: Open Data Policy
The City of Saint John has demonstrated a commitment to transparent and inclusive government. The benefits of establishing an open data policy framing this commitment can lead to improved coordination and information sharing between City of Saint John agencies, while the development of such a policy can also fuel economic development in the civic-tech sector and with a healthy ICT sector in our community the time is ripe. It is also widely understood that beyond just improving transparency a clear open data policy improves governance itself.
Open Data is a philosophy and practice to provide some of the municipally-generated data to the public in a machine-readable format, without the restrictions of copyright, patent or other control mechanisms and, most importantly, free of charge. The most commonly used open data focuses on structured data, such as geographic data, scheduling, statistics, and demographic data. It is important to highlight that the City of Saint John is a leader in accessible, open and transparent information by way of many departments. For example, the GIS department, is a leader in geographic data that is mined by many agencies external to the City of Saint John, the Common Clerk is also instrumental in maintaining and archiving all official records, contracts and deeds. Many of our departments provided open data in their respective commitment to transparent and inclusive government.
The objective of open data is to eliminate burdens to access data created or managed by government agencies, while respecting privacy and sensitivity concerns. It enables entrepreneurs, academics, community groups, other learning communities, developers, and interested citizens to use data to improve the social experience and stimulate economic growth through data applications. Open data has been fueling economic development as reported by a recent study, which found that half a million jobs have been created around mobile and web apps. Lastly, the overarching aim of this motion is to set in policy what many divisions of the City of Saint John are currently practicing on a continual and timely basis.
(1.) Engage all City of Saint John departments, agencies, boards and commissions, including the Saint John Police, Power Commission of the City of Saint John and Saint John Water for input in the drafting of a City of Saint John Open Data Policy.
(2.) Request the City Manager to draft an open data policy that reflects the input received during the engagement process to be considered for adoption by Saint John Common Council and subsequently all departments, agencies boards and commissions.
Councillor (Ward 1)
City of Saint John