How Edmonton embraces open data

NEW YORK – When the Center for Technology in Government and SAP AG were looking for examples of innovative leadership in opening government data to the public, they picked two cities. The first – New York City – may not be surprising. The other was Edmonton.

The Alberta capital has been an international leader in open government since 2009, when it committed to the release of much of its data through an open catalogue. The CIO’s office has released many data sets since, including street construction data this spring that has proven very popular with citizens.

At an SAP-sponsored event in New York this week showcasing leadership in open government , Edmonton CIO Chris Moore sat down with IT World Canada to discuss how open data can improve internal operations and how other cities can follow its lead. The following is an edited transcript.

Jeff Jedras: How did your open data project begin?

Chris Moore: We launched our open data catalogue in 2010 with 12 data sets; we now have 257. The road construction is our most recent and popular data set. The neat thing is, the department of transportation knew it would be useful information to get out to the public. And with the data catalogue, people could easily look up data. After it was released, an Edmontononian created an app called YEG Constriction. When he did that it’s almost like it brought credibility to the work, when someone will take your data and create an app.

When we release data we know it’s of interest to some, but someone isn’t calling us up and asking us to release more data. What was neat was that co-operation with a citizen to create the app. That, to me, talks about the possibilities for the future in terms of creating an open ecosystem. I’ve never ridden in an autonomous vehicle, but I’d like to experience that feeling of letting go.

JJ: So if you release it, they will come?

CM: That’s fine in hindsight. Part of the administrative concern at the start is, what will they do when we release? We helped a bit when, after a few months, we ran an apps competition. It leveraged work out of Portland, Seattle and other cities. We ran a competition, and the app developers came. Having the apps extends the usefulness of the information to the citizen.

Another thing we realized is it’s not just producing information for citizens, but also internally. Many governments have grown up to be silos – this department works in this stuff, that department works in that stuff. What we realized was there was value in opening that data for citizens, but also internally. So now road construction data is open to any department in the city.

JJ: Are you able to help them consume that data in a self-service way, without your department?

CM: Our first data catalogue was just data sets, but then we moved to a platform called Socrata. It allowed us to host the data set and has visualization tools. It’s great to visualize the data on the map. Visualization is just as important as the apps. We work with a lot of business leaders throughout the city – it’s working with the coalition of the willing. Some departments approach us to put data into the catalogue, and we approach some departments. The goal is for us to automate it so the data comes from systems to the catalogue. A few weeks ago we released a citizen platform based on our data platform. It has some key performance indicators – how many potholes fixed, roads ploughed, transit performance. We thought it was neat, like a service level agreement for citizens. We’ll be doing more dashboarding.

JJ: That’s a whole new level of citizen visibility, and accountability for managers. Have you experienced any resistance internally?

CM: I wouldn’t say we’ve experienced resistance, but we have experienced caution. People working for the city, they’re there because they want to have an impact and serve the public. When it comes to putting data out there, the caution is let’s make sure it’s accurate and useful for people. We have some caution, but we have a job to help different (department) leaders see the possibilities. The best business story is other leaders that have shared their data. During the mosquito summer we put mosquito data in the open data catalogue. I even learned we have people that open traps and count mosquitoes, analyzing them for West Nile. In the summer of 2011, it was our most popular data set. It’s working with business leaders to support them and share the right information.

JJ: You likely began this project out of your budget, but as it rolls out internally to more departments are unit leaders willing to devote budget too?

CM: When we started it was very low budget. Our first data catalogue was on the free Microsoft Azure platform, and we supported it with one-and-a-half persons. In the early 2000s, we implemented IT shared services, so we already do chargeback. So it’s not a case of charging more for a new service; it’s part of the value you get from IT. Our budget for open data is low compared to everything else, but we’ve been careful not to introduce it as an extra cost. It’s really about introducing innovation. In any government it’s about sustainable change, not the shiniest technology. It’s how do we sustain technology to deliver and improve services.

JJ: What advice do you have for other municipal CIOs looking to dip their toes into open data?

CM: The first thing I’d say is jump in — the water is fine. Start small like we did. We had 12 data sets; we have 257 now. Don’t try to conquer the whole city, don’t show up like you’re the freedom fighter of open data. Find partners internally who are early adopters who will partner with you. Show the value back to the organization, and let them know it’s a safe thing to do.