13 July 2011 ~ 6 Comments

Open Data and Information

openroad2Another article today on Open Data, this time in Toronto Standard. It makes some great points on how open data can help transform our cities, but I think misses an opportunity to highlight how making information accessible to citizens does not translate to the data being available as open data.

The article uses the example of the Toronto Wellbeing site to support the point that the city has made strides to open data, :

Is Toronto’s data accessible? The city has made some definite steps toward open data. It recently launched its Toronto Wellbeing site, which lets you see how your neighbourhood fares for a variety of factors…

What it really shows is the city’s move to make information more accessible, but as pointed out by David Eaves in his overview of Open Data projects in Canada it’s a GREAT site, but not quite open data.

Bottom line, making data useful to citizens does not automatically mean the data is open (i.e. available as raw, machine-readable format for others to take & use in a different project or to be mashed-up with another dataset).

Too often government projects miss an opportunity to not only make information accessible, such as visualizations, interactive maps, aggregated data tables, etc. but to also make the underlying raw data available as open data. While that doesn’t bother most citizens who don’t care about open data, it prevents the few that would like to use the data to build their own applications or visualizations.

What’s curious is how the public (or some journalists) react when the data is made available, but information is not, as the recent article in the Toronto Sun highlighted. The irony is that open data initiatives are fundamentally a platform, for others to build upon. Herb Lainchbury of OpenDataBC has a great comparison of open data to road infrastructure: you government builds and maintain roads, but do you also want them building cars and bikes, and be responsible for drive us around?

Of course, there are scenarios where some assistance is needed, which is the point articulated by James McKinney on OpenDataBC group and in response to my earlier post here. But truly, we can’t expect the government to be held responsible for providing all or even most of  information, applications and visualizations to meet the needs of all citizens.

That’s a greenfield opportunity for communities, journalists, students & developers who can take the data and shape it into information, i.e. their interpretation of the raw data. Then we can let the government focus on facilitating that process and only supplement the work of community where the need exists.

  • http://twitter.com/dskok David Skok

    Agree with you completely. Governments will only release what they want to have released. The onus is on journalists, students, and developers to push what is released through Freedom of Information requests. We have attempted to do just that, and are making our content available for the public to dissect as well: http://www.globalnews.ca/open/index.html We’re hoping others will follow our lead.

  • http://herblainchbury.com Herb Lainchbury

    Great post Nik (and thanks for the shout out).  I was disappointed in that Toronto Standard article.  A similar thing is happening right now with Toronto Transit.  Something being reported as open data when it’s neither open nor data.  If I was a Toronto taxpayer I would be very disappointed in this trend.

    The temptation is to water down the words to fit what they really want to do.  Fortunately, we have opendefinition.org (and fsf.org and opensource.org for software) that very clearly state what “free” and “open” mean to the community.

    Perhaps because open data is still seen as something new, it’s tricky for governments to decide between releasing applications such as these, or releasing the data that supports them.  I say release both if you have the money, but if money is tight – just release the data.  

    But, if governments can afford to do both – as is the case here – then the applications and the visualizations they produce should be based on the same public data that we as citizens have access to.  I believe that it’s only when governments have to use their own public data that we will truly see higher quality datasets and APIs emerge.

    Governments extending their monopoly to private companies is a huge step backwards in my mind.  I would urge governments everywhere to release the data first, and then if they want to build an app or a visualization, build it using that same open data.

  • Reham Gorgis

    We are working to publish most of the application’s data in raw, machine readable formats for all to play and experiment with.  It will take some time, but we’re doing our best to becoming true towards Open Data.

    • http://twitter.com/Nik_G Nik Garkusha

      That would be great, especially if the data is under an open data license!

      I’m a big fan of your work, you have a tough job of attempting to do a lot with little resources to satisfy citizen & community requirements. As Herb points out below, when you can’t do both, starting with open data is always a good idea… after all you already have the data that creates these great apps like Wellbeing.

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