07 February 2012 ~ 3 Comments

What happened, Milton?

confused_scream_faceOpen Data in Milton, ON? Not quite yet, possibly not at all!
But why? Things seem to progress so well with the Open Data motion!?

What happened: Councilor R. Di Lorenzo withdrew his motion and asked staff to report back to council on the risks, benefits and costs involving the possible implementation of an Open Data program.

What it means: The motion was shot down by a few concerned council representatives who didn’t want to endorse principles of open data and open standards, or take any further action on open data without town staff first telling them what they think it means from a cost, risk and benefit perspective.

Instead of council directing the town staff to report on practical steps toward open data (as outlined in the motion), the staff was asked to report to council on hypothetical risks/benefits/costs. This essentially relieved  council from endorsing open data, open standards and the principles of open government. While frankly I think it’s a cop out on the part of the council, I also take responsibility for not covering our bases to proactively address the challenges that stalled the motion, outlined below.

How it went down: The motion was read. Councilor Di Lorenzo said a few words to explain the motion making some great references to “planting the seed that will produce results in long term”, as well as indicating that the motion represented “gradual steps” toward open data. Councilor Hamid seconded the motion. Following that I delivered a 10-minute delegation on Open Data and why I thought it makes sense for Milton. After that the floor was open to discussion, which turned into a heated debate.

In retrospect, there were some fundamental challenges with some of the wording of the motion, and also with how I approached my presentation. Those boil down to three issues:

  • Some on the town council had no understanding of open data: the definition, the principles, or even the difference between data vs information. This created confusion as to why the motion was put forward, with questions like: “Aren’t we already open? Don’t we already share all this information?!” The opportunity with my delegation was to educate on the fundamentals vs. talking about successes of other cities with open data what’s possible.

  • Some of the council were very vocal about costs and risks of moving toward open data. Extreme scenarios from “spending millions on a new IT system” to “hiring a full-time staff to manage open data” took focus off the main action in the motion: to direct town staff to come back with exactly that – an analysis of costs and risks.

  • But it was this third challenge that proved to be the biggest obstacle: there was a distinct lack of comfort with the “move as quickly as possible”  wording in the motion below:
  • Open Standards – the Town of Milton will move as quickly as possible to adopt prevailing open standards for data, documents, maps, and other formats of media

Bottom Line: those challenges could’ve been proactively addressed through engagement with council ahead of the motion, a delegation that focused on fundamentals & education of what open data was, and focused on building consensus behind this motion as a very first of many steps toward open data.

That’s where we are. It’s not all over yet, as the town staff is now asked to investigate open data. The hope is that their analysis will focus on the “low hanging fruit” for open data, targeting a few reasonable datasets and processes that could be easily augmented for open data, and taking a reasonable scope that will make open data for Milton practical vs unattainable. 

  • Anonymous

    Comments on your bullets:

    1. Your delegation wouldn’t have the time to
    educate the councilors on the fundamentals  of opendata, or data vs. information.  In hindsight, each councilor should have been approached / educated separately.
    2. Do you have examples of what other communities spent to open up their data?  That should hopefully deflect the “millions” nonsense.

    3. Use this as a learning exercise and remember that government only moves slightly faster than the pace of continental shift.  

    Keep your hopes up. This was a great step forward.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Rick, good perspective.

    Some of the other municipalities allocate between 1 to 2 hrs per month for an IT person to update their open data webpage, and some others with catalogues ask individual departments for data (already exitsts) and load those into the catalogue (total 5-8 hours for larger muni’s at most).

    I think the key learning here is that more groundwork should be done with individuals in the city (council, staff, etc.) before hoping that an open data motion will pass.

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