Toronto starts thinking like the Web

The City of Toronto has joined a handful of other cities around the world in making its municipal data open to the public.

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 Tuesday, December 1, 2009 – Gatineau-Ottawa, QC

Toronto major David Miller launched toronto.ca/open, the city’s official data set catalogue, at the Toronto Innovation Showcase in early November.

The site includes “an initial group of data sets ranging from apartment inspection data to child care data availability to dozens of GIS mapping data (sets) that will enable a broad range of location-based applications,” he said.

An independently developed companion site, datato.org, that allows the public to request new data sets, set priority levels on the data sets by casting votes and enter discussions and debates launched the same day.

Miller initially announced that efforts were underway to create “a library of open data in machine readable formats” at the Mesh Conference for Web developers this spring.

But the open data initiative was inspired by a keynote speech from Mozilla Foundation executive director Mark Surman at the City of Toronto’s Web 2.0 Summit in the fall of last year, according to Miller.

“Openness and participation created a better Internet,” stated one of Suman’s slides. “They can also create a better city … We can make a city that thinks like the Web. You just need to ask us for help.”

After hearing Surman’s city that thinks like the Web speech, explained Miller, he committed to two things: sharing the Toronto Transit Commission’s (TTC) schedule data and exploring how to open the city’s data to everyone.

“This is an exciting change for Toronto. We are making our most valuable asset, the information and knowledge generated on behalf of the public, available to everyone who wants it,” he said.

Miller referred to Toronto as “part of a global movement of governments, most of them cities, who are leading the way.”

“Anyone can download, analyze and mash up our data or write applications to make it more accessible and useful. It is an invitation to Torontonians to do what they do best: create, innovate and build a better city,” he said.

Open data is happening in at least five other cities in a big way, according to City of Toronto CIO Dave Wallace, who also spoke at the Toronto Innovation Showcase.

Proactive disclosure is key, according to Wallace, who pointed out that about 90 per cent of data is routinely available. “We just have to get it out there,” he said.  

Context is another key element, noted Wallace. It’s important for everyone to understand what is in these data sets and to understand the codes, he said.

The majority of data that is opening up is GIS, said Wallace. Initial data sets include Toronto Centreline data, address points, business improvement areas, apartment standards for by-law infractions against buildings, day care centres and city subsidized spaces, TTC schedules and events.

The Child Care Finder is one of the most sought after data sets, according to Wallace. There is also significant interest in taking event data and creating a “two-way street” for posting events from both the city and the community.

Wallace highlighted the TTC’s work on a Trip Planner and Google Transit data, as well as University of Toronto mash ups of traffic management data.

He also noted possibilities for data on counsel and elections, parks and recreation and the additional statistics that will be generated through Toronto’s new 311 service.

Wallace encouraged the public to suggest ideas, join the community, get involved and help prioritize future releases. 

Peter Corbett, founder of Apps for Democracy in the U.S., suggested three ways to combine technology developers with government. 

Corbett’s first suggestion is to get a handful of “rockstar technology developers” who really know code to spend three to four months within government, get to know the problems and build projects while they are in there.  

Think of ways to get the alpha geeks inside government institutions not as consultants on the outside, but as a part of the team sitting with you every day to build things with you and for you, he said.

He highlighted a new project called Code for America coming this spring that will combine technology developers with government to produce innovation. “We think about it as Teach for America but for civic application developers,” he said.

Corbett’s second suggestion is to create a “massively distributed open source project for civic application development” that would be administered by a non-profit .org with no political interests, advocacy or lobbying efforts.

“Civic application staff with big brains, just brains. It’s not about politics. It’s not about anything but brains and code,” he said.

The idea is to create a place where developers building in various cities such as DC, New York, San Francisco, Toronto and Vancouver can contribute to and other civic coders can draw from, he explained.

One you have this central repository, civic coders can come in, take what’s been built previously and pop it into their open cities from which they reside and are passionate about, he said.

There have been almost 60 applications built for DC by its citizens based on open government data and almost all of them are open source, he pointed out.

Corbett noted the success of application development contests such as Apps for America and app stores such as the citizen-developed appstore.dc.gov and federal government-led apps.gov. “But the really interesting piece of this, I think, is dead in the middle, which is the building of an open application ecology,” he said.

Roughly six cities have data catalogues that are “interesting” and developers are able to mash up, according to Corbett. “Within ten years, I’d say there is going to be hundreds of them, so this is very early stuff,” he said.

Corbett’s final suggestion is to turn a building, such as an empty school, into a type of “social innovation academy” where “basically anyone could come to and host their own session to teach people about civic application development or open source programming or whatever they want.”

Highly structured programs with large operating budgets over $1 million per year aren’t necessary, according to Corbett, who suggested adopting “an IKEA mentality” that simply requires some chairs, tables, WiFi, pizza and caffeine.

The bureaucracy around getting building as a technology community organizer is mind-boggling, he pointed out. “Give the kids a building. They’ll figure out what to do with it,” he said.



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