A Halton Region Citizen Initiative

We are a group of citizens who believe in transformational power of open data and open government, our mission is to bring Open Data to the Halton region.

19 September 2011 ~ 1 Comment

Burlington Open Data Pilot

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http://www.flickr.com/photos/batara/4482071468City of Burlington just launched an Open Data pilot, proudly joining the likes of Vancouver, Nanaimo, Toronto, Edmonton and Ottawa. Championed by the city’s Information Technology Services department, this initiative is a solid step towards improving transparency, accountability and citizen engagement.

Earlier in July OpenHalton was involved in helping organize an “Open Data e-Gov Focus Group” and that same month I was invited to speak to council in support of on Open Data initiative spearheaded and presented by Christine Swenor, Director of IT Services. The council was very receptive to the initiative (the full webcast recording is here). Within just 2 months Burlington was able to launch a full pilot, with the following objectives outlined in this memo to council:

  • The goal is to better understand all aspects of open data, including resource requirements and benefits, which will better inform the e-Government Strategy;
  • The pilot is being supported by the Parks & Recreation, Clerks, Legal & IT Services dept’s
  • Parks & related facilities data will be published as data sets for the pilot
  • Other datasets (!) may be added over the duration of the pilot where appropriate and manageable.

Of particular interest is the following quote from the memo:

It has become evident that Open Data is a key component of Open Government and should be addressed within the e-Government Strategy.

Indeed, this is the type of a holistic view that many other cities could benefit from, as they look to refresh their websites or update their citizen services online. Burlington seems to be quite serious about the role of open data in driving better citizen services:

The purpose of Open Data is to enhance transparency and accountability and potentially service delivery.

Well done, Burlington, for recognizing the potential offered by Open Data, and also for championing the movement in the Halton Region!

Critics may point to the Terms of Use issues stemming from re-use of Vancouver License, or that there’s just one dataset (schema seems to be influenced by this Vancouver’s parks listing) or that it contains just point-coordinate data vs. complete park boundaries. However, those are part of a learning process a city is expected to go through as it matures its understanding of open data and refines its strategies for open government.

As I look at the flurry of activities just west in Hamilton, led by our friends at Open Hamilton, I can’t help but think we’re starting to get somewhere with this Open Data thing…. Now we just need to get cranking on building apps from this data to show what’s possible :)

[image from Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/batara/4482071468/ ]

25 August 2011 ~ 1 Comment

3 Quick Wins for your Open Gov Initiative

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Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/59937401@N07/5857826966/If you’re a government agency evaluating ways to get started with your Gov 2.0 / Open Gov / Open Data initiatives, keep in mind these 3 simple strategies for a quick win:

1. Review the terms of use

Even if your agency doesn’t have an Open Data policy, your agency’s website could have potentially restrictive terms of use policies. When looking at enabling Government as a platform, a quick win is to review and revise your site’s terms of use.

Specifically, are you explicitly preventing someone from using or even linking to your site’s information? Citizens that want to leverage and re-use public information on your site — for example, waste pickup schedules, council information or ward boundaries — may be legally bound from doing so. Ensure that this type of information isn’t restricted by “sweeping” terms of use policies, it can be as simple as revising the footer of those web pages. For more see this piece on licenses at Eaves.ca

2. Publish the original files

Another quick win is publishing the “raw” structured file that were originally used to create the public information on your agency’s site. More often than not, the print-ready documents in formats like PDF originate from machine-readable, structured documents or spreadsheets. While some argue that PDF does a good job of “preserving document integrity”, it often handicaps efforts to automatically extract the data.

If your web pages or PDF downloads originate from a spreadsheet, document, or any other type of a structured file format (including geospatial formats) — offering up the raw files saves developers the headache of reverse-engineering the documents you can just as easily publish online, along with the PDFs if you so choose.

3. Make open what’s already public

The last tactic is identifying the “low hanging fruit” for open data — typically information that’s already public. My favorite are various geospatial datasets that you may already be sharing today via maps, guides, etc. If your agency is using GIS (Geographic Information System) software, you can simply export the data that was originally used to create those nice citizen-friendly guides & community maps into a popular format like KML. Think maps of your agency’s facilities, points of interest, parks, city and ward boundaries, etc. This GIS data can then augment the static maps and power some very useful citizen-ready Gov 2.0 applications.

These are some simple but effective strategies to get the ball rolling with your Gov 2.0 initiatives.

26 July 2011 ~ 3 Comments

Why Open Data is cool

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a Case Study for Municipal Open Data

The heat is scorching! Residents across Ontario, Quebec and part of the US are trying to stay cool. Many seek out public swimming pools and splash-pads, and turn to their municipalities for information. Others, like Joey Coleman of OpenHamilton and yours truly seek out ways to make that information more accessible.

imageHamilton’s Dowsing and Milton Splash are two of the most recent examples of what is possible with open data. They represent a a real-life case study of how Open Data can help keep us cooler, while also helping cities provide a better service at a lower cost.

This is how:

STAY CURRENT: Many municipalities – like the town of Milton – provide great-looking printed community maps with swimming pool & spray pad information, and various community services guides. The challenge with those are production and printing costs, which pose a barrier to keeping the information current. For instance, the Milton map is missing some of the newer facilities (like the 2 splash pads in newer areas of Milton).

The solution: post the source data for the map – i.e. a machine-readable list of facilities with geographic coordinates. No fancy formatting, no map production, or printing, or distribution required – save our taxpayer’s dollars. Just publish the raw, most up-to-date data online, the data that already exists in town’s information systems. To Milton’s credit, town staff produced a Beat the Heat poster with an updated list of facilities, which even included an advisory on one of the spray pads closed for repairs. The obvious challenge: what happens when repairs are completed, but the flyer is still in circulation? Again, open data to the rescue:

imageONE SOURCE: With so many sources of information (maps, guides, flyers, website pages), open data can become one definitive source of data. OpenHamilton’s Dowsing does just that by pulling partial data for water facilities from at least 4 sources into one dataset. Milton Splash similarly integrates information from 3 printed publications into a single dataset. One place as one definitive source of data drives better accuracy and also better government efficiency: cities with open data catalogues discover that not only citizens, but also city staff use those catalogues as the primary source of data.

imageWhen implemented correctly, i.e. with workflows and processes to keep the data current, cities can realize significant savings by having just one place to update. Many open data catalogues, such as Microsoft’s open source OGDI or commercial Socrata provide open standard Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to the data. This creates a cascading effect, with open data API’s driving many different uses:

MANY USES: Even without “fancy” APIs or “catalogues” any municipality can realize the benefits of open data. All it takes is data, a website and a license (a license outlines the terms of use / agreement for how the data should be used; for more info on the topic of licenses see this recent article on the state of open data licenses in Canada).

Once the data is online in a machine-readable format, it can literally “turn on” any number of web pages, digital maps, visualizations, online reports, web and mobile applications, and even ordinary spreadsheets like Excel, accessible for those without programming skills. That is Government as a Platform: the vision popularized by Tim O’Reilly. For water facilities all the cities need to do is provide the names, coordinates, hours & status (advisories, etc.) as a download. For Milton I used OGDI allowing me to make the data accessible as an html table, or a file download (CSV, etc), a map or KML download (common mapping format), or as an XML oData feed or JSON API to power any number of interactive maps and apps just like Milton Splash .

Dowsing and Milton Splash are just small examples of what can be accomplished with open data. Both are relatively uncomplicated apps, but each can provide a useful service to Hamilton and Milton residents searching for a pool or a spray pad nearby. As the heat wave breaks records, one couldn’t ask for a better way to showcase the value of Open Data.

13 July 2011 ~ 6 Comments

Open Data and Information

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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.

07 July 2011 ~ 3 Comments

Toronto’s Data: Open. Rinse. Repeat.

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Yesterday’s article in Toronto Sun claims: Toronto’s data open but almost useless.

imageThe author argues that Toronto’s open data catalogue isn’t "truly open" because citizens need to rely on “web-savvy developers to do the hard work for them”. A corollary point is that Toronto’s open data is “almost useless” until the Government builds or implements interfaces, applications & tools to make the data more accessible to non-technical audiences.

While I agree that it’s important to have citizen-ready applications, visualizations, mash-ups, etc., it’s not the Government’s responsibility to provide those, nor is it a requirement for the data to be called “open data”.

The whole point of open data is to enable Government as a Platform for others to build upon, where the Government does the least possible to get the data out into the open, so that others, not Government, can then build visualizations, applications, mashups, etc. Tim O’Reilly makes this point clear in the StreetFilms’ video on Open Data in Transit (~01:30 mark).

The key to getting more citizen-ready applications & visualizations is fostering community development, working in tandem with the local open data & open gov advocates to scale through others. There’s nothing wrong with citizens relying on web-savvy developers to build apps, that’s how it’s done for thousands of "non-opendata" apps that we use every day on the web, mobile, desktop. The point is that our governments need to build competencies in harnessing the skills & knowledge of communities to take that open data from raw form to a citizen-ready app.

City of Toronto has a great strategy in pushing to make open data as part of each department’s workflow; it’s visionary in that this is a cultural shift and not a point-in-time activity. But as with any initiative that’s pushing the cultural, process & technology boundaries, there are cost/benefit and immediacy/relevancy trade-offs. In case of open data, as long as the data is as close to the source, original dataset, there’s nothing wrong in getting it out in a machine-readable format under an open license sooner rather than later.

By the way, Toronto’s catalogue file formats aren’t that drastically different from any other catalogue, providing your usual CSV, XML, XLS formats that are "spreadsheet-ready". If it’s the geographic formats that _seems_ to be "user unfriendly" (ESRI Shapefile vs. the commonly-used KML), there are also relatively simple ways to convert those GIS formats without having to sacrifice staying close to the original data formats used by the city.

Open, Rinse, Repeat is the recipe for success, not Wait Till it’s Perfect & Pretty, but Outdated.

I’ll take open data SOONER rather than later, ANY format rather than no format, and NOT having to wait months or years till it’s "perfect", but meets everyone’s requirements according to everyone’s technical comfort level.

04 July 2011 ~ 4 Comments

Burlington Open Data focus group

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The City of Burlington has invited anyone interested in open data / open gov / gov 20 community to participate in the following e-Gov Focus Group:

OH Burlington Open Data Focus GroupSession 5: Targeted to OPEN DATA
July 6: 7 to 9 p.m.
Brant Hills Community Centre
2255 Brant Street

Participants will discuss ideas on how e-Goverment can provide interested parties with published government data in open formats.

Register on EventBrite (optional) here: http://opendataburlington.eventbrite.com/

Why is this a big deal?

Open Government Data creates innovation and business opportunities for local organizations.

It’s GREAT to see the City of Burlington recognizing this and taking active steps to engage with citizens, open gov / open data activists & IT community through an open dialogue. Way to go!

This Focus Group is intended as an exploration of what’s possible in Burlington / Halton, voicing of the various opinions, exploring areas of opportunities, addressing concerns and – most importantly — how we can get the ball rolling with the City’s help!

If you live/work/study in Burlington or Halton and are interested in Open Data, Open Gov, Gov 2.0 – this Focus Group is a must-attend for you!

The tentative agenda proposed for the workshop is as follows:

Individual Introductions – 1 minute about yourself and why you are here.

Intro and Learn about the topic
City / Consultant to lead a brief 5 minute intro and presentation about e-Government to be, examples of e-Government in action and how this piece of work fits within the overall e-Government program (e.g. policy, strategy, implementation). This will also provide an update about where the City of Burlington is with Open Data (e.g. SMT presentation, recommendation to Council, etc …)

Open Halton (and Silicon Halton) take on Open Data / Open Government
Short 10-15 minute presentation from Open Halton on Open Data and Open Government – on Open Data possibilities and opportunities – to set the stage for open discussion

Open / Facilitated Discussion with the following key topic area:

  • What can the City do to facilitate and stimulate the Open Data community in Burlington?
    What data is the Community interested in? What is the low hanging fruit? Where should we start?
  • Can we prioritize the importance of those datasets?
  • Are there any barriers to Open Data in Burlington that we need to overcome?
  • What pitfalls should the City be aware of, and avoid?
  • What are your expectations regarding data formats?
  • What questions do you have for the City?
  • How can the City and the Community stay in contact?
  • Any other questions / comments?

Please email or tweet if you have questions / comments about this Focus Group / Workshop.

Hope to see you there!

28 June 2011 ~ 0 Comments

Vancouver Parks Finder

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For a site focused on the Halton Region this blog has way too many posts about Vancouver. That’s because both the city & the province have such active Open Data / Open Gov initiatives. There’s a constant stream of new datasets being released by the City of Vancouver, and the City staff actively participates in local Open Data communities.

One of the latest datasets made open – Vancouver Parks Listing – peaked my interest, because of how useful it is for anyone looking for just the right park with just the right facilities for a hike, scenic strolls, a picnic or a friendly game of tennis.

Because the raw data on Vancouver parks was made open, anyone — from professional application developers, to “amature” coders like myself, to even non-technical users — can now visualize and build something useful like maps, parks or feature searches. That is exactly what I put together in just a couple of nights’ worth of work:


VanPark (Vancouver Park Finder) is based on the SIMILE Exhibit project, which makes it easy to build visualizations & data ‘browsers’ with faceted searches. It’s particularly useful for when you’re trying to "find" a particular record based on criteria, which applies beautifully to locating a park based on its features, such as location/neighborhood, size of parks, washroom locations & hours, or special features such as a seawall.

One small twist in this project was writing code to load the data at run-time dynamically via a JSON feed from an OGDI powered catalogue; the data in the catalogue is the same as the XLS/CSVs on the City’s catalogue – but can be programmatically accessed & queried via API’s (JSON, oData, etc.) I make the code available as Open Source with Exhibit code already available as OSS under the BSD License.

This means that this small project is highly customizable and easy to adapt for any region / city… all that our regional and municipal governments need to do is to publish the data on our parks as "open data”. This data in the right hands can then power park finders, interactive applications, mobile apps and bring a lot more value to us as citizens. After all, this information already exists in various map and web-pages for our region of Halton and our towns Burlington, Milton, etc…. it just needs to be set free!

02 May 2011 ~ 0 Comments

Vancouver Council Expenses

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Vancouver Council Expenses

PART 1: Why Expense Data should be Open Data ?

Earlier this week I found out that the City of Vancouver had added their Council Expenses as open data to the city’s Open Data Catalogue. This is a great example of municipal government transparency and commitment to open data, as demonstrated by their posting of detailed expense transactions starting in year 2010.

This type of data begs to be visualized, pivoted & presented to citizens in rich formats.image

While some think open data “geeks” are out to use open data as “weapons to hold the system accountable”, I think it’s our right to be able to derive INSIGHTS and drive ALL possible benefits from this data being opened.

Not only does it help understand how our taxpayer’s money is being spent, but along the way we get a really clear sense of how much our councilors are doing. Even a quick glimpse at the Vancouver Expense data reveals how much time councilors spend in the community: “Business and Event Expenses” is by far the largest category of expenses.

Check out what I did with this data: Vancouver Council Expense – 2010 Visualization

(Note: as of writing of this post, the City of Vancouver denied my written request to use council images from their site, making it quite boring by comparison to my desktop version below – that I can’t share according to the city’s Terms of Use) Sad smile

When will Hamilton & the Halton municipalities release their Council Expense data? How long would it take our administration to reach a level of comfort and confidence to do what Vancouver, and so many other cities around the world do routinely?

PART 2: How did I do it?

imageI have just watched a cool TED video with Gary Flake talking about LiveLabs PivotViewer, so I wanted to try and mash-up and visualize Vancouver’s data using PivotViewer. Using some relatively simple data transformation tools, you can build a “collection” that can be visualized via an older desktop app called Live Labs Pivot or a newer Silverlight app, resulting in this:

My experience with Expense Data visualization in 3 steps:

  1. Downloaded & cleaned up the XLS from the City’s catalogue (copied “raw data” for expense details into a standalone sheet RawData, pivoted RawData table to make sure totals match City’s Totals, added a council Table with council details (image URL, when elected, etc) and merged all of the data fields into one table on a CollectionData sheet. Along the way I added some simple formulas to extract council names, and calculate percentiles for each expense line item. Here’s the data source XLSX I ended up with.
  2. Downloaded & installed all the PivotView pieces I needed to build & visualize: Silverlight Control, Pivot Collection Tool (Pauthor OSS project), LiveLabs Pivot (for local testing) and the PivotViewer Tool for Excel. For Pauthor I had to install the 2007 Office System Driver pack (in the process I found I needed to recompile for x86 it to fix this issue with Pauthor pick up the right drivers on a 64-bit OS). Next I followed the UserGuide & modified the .XLSX for the sample collection included with Pauthor: copied the CollectionData table into the “items” sheet, configured the “facet_cateogories” & lastly, got creative to use a VLOOKUP to specify a custom image for each item based on the type of expense. Here’s the collection XLSX I ended up with.
  3. Lastly, I tweaked the .htm template for Pauthor so that the resulting image for each item in the collection merged images of councilors with custom image for each type of expense, and show a couple of extra fields. All I had to do then is to run Pauthor to build the collection, and then create a very simple Silverlight app with the PivotView control following this guide. I ended up with a PivotView app that loaded my collection from URL, so in the future I’ll just need to upload a new collection…. which brings me to this question:

So, when can we can see some Halton or Hamilton Council expense data? For that matter, any expense, budget or financial data?

Does anyone know if those get reported and/or captured in any sort of “data format”??

If Vancouver can do it, why can’t we?

22 April 2011 ~ 0 Comments

Halton & Hamilton Meetup Recap

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Halton & Hamilton Meetup Recap

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

- Margaret Mead

Wednesday night’s open data meet-up hosted by OpenHalton and OpenHamilton in Burlington brought out folks from Cambridge, Hamilton, Oakville, Burlington, Milton, Mississauga, Toronto and as far east as Stouffville, ON.


To share experiences, projects, ideas & meet with others who are passionate about Open Data and Open Government. We kicked off with my quick overview of what drives open data communities “Your Data. Our Data [on slideshare]”, highlighting some examples of innovative projects across North America. We tried to stick to a 5-minute presentation format, but that really wasn’t enforced enough to call this an Ignite presentation event, with exception of Jury Konga’s talk “Open Gov & Open Data: Reality Check [on slideshare]”.

Joey Coleman’s talk on Open Journalism in the Web 3.0 world set the tone for how Open Data transforms our society, followed by Mark Arteaga’s demo of WardRep.ca: the end result of cross-region open data community collaboration to make Ward Boundary & Representative information easier to access by citizens.

Finally, Leyden M. Fonte spoke about her Research & Innovation Jobs project at TRRA and Steve Czajka from the City of Mississauga blew our minds with his demos of datasets at mississauga.ca/data and plans for MississaugaData.

The main take-away from this meet-up is realization that there is A LOT of open data going on in the region. From activists, hackers, journalists, non-profits, private companies & government organizations – the projects & initiatives are picking up throughout Hamilton, Halton & Peel. Our opportunity is to be better informed and work smarter, together, across our regional community groups.

16 April 2011 ~ 0 Comments

OpenHalton / OpenHamilton Meetup #1

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OpenHalton / OpenHamilton Meetup #1

Last week we added Hamilton Ward & Representative data to WardRep.ca and we’re getting ready to launch!

To celebrate the occasion, and also to mix & mingle, meet & greet others in the local Open Data / Open Gov / IT & Developer community we decided it would be a fun idea to organize a meet-up. It’s an opportunity to all meet/greet each other, do some idea sharing, a bit of networking and just have some fun at an open data/open gov gathering. We’re planning to have a few Ignite talks (5 min rapid-fire presentations), and then socialize.

We’re also sending invitations to our municipal and regional government contacts, so hopefully we’ll have a few people representing the cities and participate in the idea sharing on how we can partner to bing Open Data to our regions.

The location is PhilthyMcNasty’s in Burlington (I know, what a name??) upstairs 7pm April 20th

Register below, and since a number of us are in various local communities and organizations, please Spread the Word to your network and contacts!

See you there?!

Register for OpenHalton OpenHamilton open data meetup in Burlington, Ontario  on Eventbrite