Montreal joins open data movement

Montreal has become the latest Canadian municipality to make some of the extensive data in its computer systems available publicly online, a movement that is slowly gaining acceptance at the federal, municipal and local levels.

“Citizens are increasingly digital-literate,” says Diane Mercier, who is the manager in charge of the Montreal open data project, which was approved by the city’s executive council late last month.

One of the city’s goals to help residents become better informed about municipal issues. But, Mercier added, “open data is a very good thing for [our] employees, because they have difficulty sharing information within the organization” thanks to non-standardized data formats.

So another goal of the project is to eliminate barriers staff face to collaborating with each other because of the differing datasets.

Still in its early stages, the French-only portal includes data from the 2006 census for the Montreal area, results from the 2009 municipal election, as well as geo-tagable information such as what streets are undergoing repairs, the locations of police and fire stations and a list of events. Data can be used under a creative commons licence that allows commercial use, Mercier said.

Around the world citizens are not only grabbing information like this to keep up do date with what their governments are doing, as well as creating mashups of data for mobile applications. For example, before the open data project went live one Montrealer created an app that links public health reports on eating establishments to a map of the city.

According to David Eaves, a Vancouver-based consultant on open data strategies, Montreal is the eighth city to open its data in some way to the public. Others are Toronto, Ottawa, Windsor, Ont., Mississauga, Ont., Vancouver and Nanaimo, B.C.

While the move by these and other municipalities is welcome, Eaves says it’s stilted. “In many places in Canada, these programs are run off the side of somebody’s desk. The commitment on the part of the government to them is nominal at best.”

In Montreal, for example, Mercier said the open data project has no budget and the staff who populate the portal volunteer their time.

Broadly speaking, open data is more than posting statistics online. It is supposed to be an effort that encourages IT-based collaboration between citizens and their governments. Ideally, says IDC Canada, it leads to “smart government,” where information is seen as a public asset, public engagement enhances decision-making and collaboration between department and citizens delivers optimal service.

According to an IDC Canada survey earlier this year of 150 federal, provincial and local governments, half said they have no mandate or plans to open data to the public. Just under 17 per cent said they have an open data Web site running. Another 2.7 per cent said they have a beta version of an open data site up, while four per cent said an open data Web site is being developed. Just over seven per cent of respondents said their government is planning an open data initiative.

Small wonder the report concludes that open data uptake in Canada has been haphazard. While provincial and municipal governments have made some progress, it won’t likely occur at all at the federal level, predicts the report, without something like the memorandum President Barak Obama gave the U.S. civil service in 2009. (However, that initiative has encountered resistance from Congress.)Not that Ottawa isn’t trying. In March it started an Open Data Pilot Project, says IDC, releasing 780 general data sets, and 260,000 geospatial data sets. “Reviews of the site are mixed, with criticism largely centred on the value of the data sets released, and the prohibited licensing clause which has caused a number of open data activists to challenge the claim that it is in fact an open data site,” says the report.

By contrast, says the report, a number of Canadian municipalities have issued “a plethora of high value data sets.” However, report co-author Alison Brooks, director of public sector research at IDC Canada, acknowledged in an interview that it is easier for local governments to release important data because they have less sensitive personal information.

Still, Eaves said that in the U.S. several cities are ahead of Canada in seeing open data as strategic initiative that will drive better policy. For example, he said, Chicago has a chief data officer. “This is a data governance problem,” he said, not a technology issue. Diane Mercier said something similar: “Open data is an organizational problem.”

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