Three years ago the city plunged into open data. Its lessons might not apply to all municipalities thinking of posting much of their data online but are worth reading

Toronto’s open data surprise

VAUGHAN, Ont. — In 2009, Toronto’s mayor made a dramatic announcement: The city was immediately adopting an open data policy.

Not only that, it was going to start posting data on the Internet in a month.

The announcement was made “to the surprise of staff,” Daphne Gaby Donaldson, Toronto’s executive director of corporate information management services, told a municipal open data conference here Tuesday.

Fortunately, she added, the IT department had been talking to developers about the idea and were somewhat prepared.

Three years later the city has published some 100 data sets that citizens can use to create apps, and a process for encouraging staff to look at data their departments hold and get more online.

It’s not perfect, Donaldson said – in fact, she said, it’s still a “huge challenge” to break down some of the silos of data that departments have erected. But she said that with the public demanding online service delivery and to participate more in the decision making of governments, its clear open data is one tool Toronto uses to keep pace with the digital world.

More Canadian municipalities, provinces and federal departments are embracing the global open data movement, which takes as its principle that non-personal data held by government belongs to the public.
 
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Speakers here generally cited British Columbia and Quebec as the provincial leaders, with Toronto, Vancouver and Nanaimo, B.C., among the leading municipalities. The federal government has only just issued its action plan.

Tuesday’s conference, organized by the Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario (AMCTO), was aimed at encouraging local governments in Ontario to get moving on their own open data plans. Of the 32 municipalities across the country that post open data, a dozen are in Ontario.

There are a number of challenges, speakers outlined, including getting staff behind the movement. One municipal IT worker told the meeting that his department pulls in $400,000 a year from selling certain data from his municipality to the private sector. “I have a great deal of trouble releasing data for free,” he said.

Another noted that paper versions of Ontario’s property assessment lists are available to the public. But the not-for-profit agency that compiles the list forbids it being put online.

There was some discussion of the benefits of an open data policy, which can be used to persuade politicians and bureaucrats. Roy Wiseman, former chief information officer for the Region of Peel who is now executive director of the Municipal Information Systems Association of Canada (MISA Canada), noted the European Union thinks open data will give a CDN$50 billion boost to the continent’s economy as the private sector leverages the data. A Cambridge University study – which Wiseman said he hasn’t gone through — concluded open data will give Britain a CDN$260 million pound lift in the first year of the program.

Treasury Board president Tony Clement, who heads Canada’s open government initiative, has gone so far as to say “[open] data is Canada’s new resource” that will help spur innovation.

Such claims are hard to verify. In fact Wiseman warned there’s been so much hype around the alleged benefits of open data its may suffer from inflated expectations. Like a hype cycle observed by Gartner Research about new technology fads, after a peak in interest there may be some disillusionment when open data is found not to cure everything, he said, followed a a steady resumption based on realistic expectations.

But Wiseman and other speakers insisted the benefits are real, including a better informed electorate. However, Wiseman also cautioned that open data likely won’t transform a municipality’s economy.

A number of speakers were interested in knowing simply how to get started on an open data plan. Jury Konga, principal of the eGovFutures Group, an IT management consulting firm, said one of the problems municipalities face is the lack of a definitive list of best practices.

But one thing he did say is that to be successful bureaucrats need to create a business case for getting into open data. “If you can’t look at open data as addressing part of what the priorities of council are you’re really not doing due diligence.”

Interestingly, Toronto’s Donaldson said her city’s council has never passed a resolution creating an open data policy. Instead, after the mayor’s declaration, city managers made it so.

Staff learned quickly collaboration was needed after one of the first data sets inadvertently included personal data. That lead to responsibility for open data put on a team headed by the city’s CIO and Donaldson, representing the city’s clerk’s office. A committee headed by the city clerk provides oversight.

It is up to the city departments to suggest which data is clean and can be released. In some cases data released is accompanied by a context statement so figures aren’t misinterpreted, which, Donaldson said, relieves some concerns of staff – particularly if the data is about spending.

Before anything is posted departments and the CIO have to sign off on a data quality checklist verifying that the data is owned by the city or it has permission to use it publicly; that there is no personal information or six-digit postal codes and that it doesn’t contain intellectual property.

Donaldson also outlined a list of lessons the city has learned in its open data voyage, including the importance of setting policies and standardizing data formats; circulating lists of data about to be released to senior managers – that makes them competitive about releasing more, she said; remind staff regularly how developers are using the data to create apps and host ‘hackathons’ to teach citizens how to write apps.

“By-in from senior staff is essential,” she added. “Strong partnerships between information management, information technology and the data custodians” is also vital.

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