City of Ottawa moves to formalize open data program

Although the City of Ottawa has already planted some seeds of an open data initiative, last year, in the form of a data set catalog and an app contest, a move to formalize an actual program will start next week.

Heading that initiative is Robert Giggey, the City’s IT account manager, who said the objective is to develop a process for open data and establish funding and permanent staff for the effort.

“The largest benefit is access to information about city services and city performance,” said Giggey, of the advantages to citizens.

There are, at the moment, what Giggey calls “loose plans and ideas” that will get explored in the coming months. Some of those include bolstering the City’s catalog of “fairly static” data such as recreation facility and park locations with more dynamic content that can change periodically such as transit bus locations.

Another idea is to release APIs for developers to build library apps for mobile devices so users can view book availability and reserve them. Transparency is a goal of open data, too, such as posting counselor expense and budget information.

But Giggey won’t be re-inventing the wheel. The city of Ottawa is part of an Open Data Framework that includes other the Cities of Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver, with the goal of sharing open data best practices, including formats and standards.

Some member cities are transitioning from a standard Web page table format to an automated system, so learning from each other will be key. “It’s just sharing those experiences. There could be joint negotiations with groups or companies offering catalog platforms for all four cities to use or others (to use),” said Giggey.

In March of this year, the federal government’s open data initiative, GC Open Data Portal, a pilot one-stop shop for all departments’ data sets, was launched but encountered some criticism from developers and researchers regarding aspects of its data license agreement. Grievance was borne out of clauses that stated that the data could not be used to bring “disrepute” to Canada’s reputation or to identify individuals or businesses.

By the end of the summer, the City of Ottawa, will be smoothing out some licensing issues of its own, albeit relatively smaller compared to those faced by the federal government. One point of discussion here, said Giggey, is whether to tweak the agreement into an Ottawa-specific version or to share a standard license.

While feedback on the license agreement has been minimal from the user community, Giggey said “so far, we’re not getting a big indication that our current license is preventing people from going forward.” But he does hope for more feedback.

Earlier in June, a Gartner analyst, Andrea DiMaio, suggested, during a keynote at the MISA (Municipal Information Systems Association) conference in Mississauga, Ont., that a “portfolio” approach should be applied to open data initiatives in government. Specifically, an open data strategy should identify costs, benefits and risks.

Giggey agrees with the portfolio approach, saying, “We should be able to quantity, or at least describe, in some fashion the benefits we are receiving from open data to ensure any investment we make in it makes sense.”

However, Giggey said he’s not actually aware of any municipal open data government initiatives doing that. As for the City of Ottawa, the plan this year is to establish performance indicators that will measure success. “It may be difficult. It would require some thinking across the board,” said Giggey.

Measuring the success of posting recreation facility locations, for instance, might be done by looking at the uptake of recreational swimming or doing customer satisfaction surveys, said Giggey. But, he added, it’s still not the most accurate form of measurement.

Follow Kathleen Lau on Twitter: @KathleenLau

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