Open data in Regina, open minds at Microsoft

The City of Regina has joined a growing list of Canadian municipalities that are democratizing their data using the cloud.
For the past few months, it’s been publishing information for its residents via Microsoft’s OGDI (open government data initiative) platform, which uses developer-friendly open standards and APIs and runs on the company’s Azure cloud. Regina residents now have quick access to municipal information ranging from transit schedules to garbage pickup schedules.
From the municipality’s perspective, the benefit of opening up the city’s data lies in the fact that it streamlines the flow of information from government to citizens.
“As a city, we were reproducing and giving out a lot of duplicate sets of data,” said Alyssa Daku, City of Regina manager of corporate information governance. “So we would have the same requests for the same set of data repeatedly throughout the year.
“It puts the raw the data in the hands of citizens, but on the flip side of that, it’s also an efficiency gain for government institutions because we can reduce the number of times that we have to produce those data sets.”
The Web-based portal has only been online a few months, so it’s too early to talk about cost savings, she added, but the city definitely expects a reduction compared to doing things the old way. The municipality was processing more than 2,000 requests for data every year, so if that number could be reduced by even 50, it figured the project would have proven its worth, Daku said.
Plus, the open-source nature of the platform allows developers to get into the mix and create practical applications that are valuable to the public. “Already we’re seeing some of those innovations and opportunities that come from making that data available.”
For instance, David Eaves, an expert on open data in government based in Vancouver who founded a startup called Recollect, created an application the city is using that reminds people to take out their garbage and recycling via email or Twitter alerts. Several other cities in Canada are using it as well, although some don’t share the data publically.
“We also saw an Android transit app that was developed using, again, our open data that’s available on the open data catalogue,” said Daku.
Eaves says transit apps represent one of the most practical uses of the technology, that is, opening up data that is in most demand. However, while these applications are certainly useful, he sees even greater potential for large-scale civic engagement through open data platforms.
“A lot of people really focus on the apps in open data whereas I’m actually quite interested in all the analysis,” he said. “I feel like there’s a huge, rich opportunity around more groups and more citizens being able to grab the information to do their own analysis and participate in municipal debates more effectively.”
For example, last year, BTAWorks, the R&D wing of Bing Thom Architects Inc. in Vancouver, created a toolkit using the city’s open data catalogue to model the impacts of rising sea levels on the metropolitan area, including potential costs and implications for zoning.
With initiatives like OGDI and things like adding the ability to run Linux virtual machines on Azure, Microsoft seems to be warming to the open-source world after years of somewhat chilly relations. But Nik Garkusha, open platforms lead at Microsoft Canada Inc., expects the company to continue to keep the lines of communication open.
“Open-source and Microsoft have actually had a long history now and the relationship has been, I would say, really rapidly improving towards positive, where we are actually are very much participation and involved with the open-source community in general,” said Garkusha.
On the other hand, Eaves believes there is a “big cultural battle” within Microsoft over this kind of engagement is unsure what it will mean in the future. “It’s very hard to see who is going to win.”
[RELATED: Azure cloud hits right notes for Canadian companies]

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