Building the transparent city: creating opportunity through open data - Part I

A 17 minute read written by Jordan October 1, 2014

open door vector illustration

Governments across the world are focused on transparency and leaders are looking to engage with their citizens and foster innovation and collaboration.

One of the key methods government has embraced to provide transparency, increase engagement, and promote collaboration is open data. While this is only one small facet in an overall strategy, a compelling and well managed open data catalogue can be a critical first step for many in government.

You may have heard of the terms “open government” and “open data”. For some, these terms are synonymous. While they go hand in hand, open data does not necessarily create open government. Providing access to municipal data is one of the first steps in creating open government, but open government also includes service delivery and process transparency.

Through a series of blog posts, I’ll be examining the role open data plays in an open government, the relationship between the two, and how cities are transforming the way they do business.

For this first post, I’ve performed initial audits of what municipalities are doing, along with trends I have identified in their open data catalogues. These audits set the stage for my upcoming blog series in that they give the details needed to see how cities are working at being transparent.

Before we dig into the analysis, let’s first define a few terms:

What is open data?

I’m going to directly quote Wikipedia, since I couldn’t put it any better myself:

Open data is the idea that certain data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control.The goals of the open data movement are similar to those of other "open" movements such as open source, open hardware,open content, and open access. The philosophy behind open data has been long established (for example in the Mertonian tradition of science) but the term "open data" itself is recent, gaining popularity with the rise of the Internet and World Wide Web and, especially, with the launch of open data government initiatives such as Data.gov and Data.gov.uk.

For this post, I’ll be looking at open data in the context of municipalities, though it’s not just cities that are publishing open data. You can also find open data in academic and scientific communities. As Wikipedia mentions, all levels of government are providing access to this data.

Our own Dave Bellous provides some great local examples in his blog article “What is Open Data?”

What is open government?

Again, I’m going to let Wikipedia do the talking:

Open government is the governing doctrine which holds that citizens have the right to access the documents and proceedings of the government to allow for effective public oversight.

What are municipalities publishing?

Determining what data is currently being published is the first step in my process of understanding the relationship between open data and open government. With that in mind, I identified criteria for each municipality:

Do they have an open data catalogue?

Unsurprisingly, all of the municipalities I analyzed have an open data catalogue. (I’ve omitted this question from the results.)

Is open data part of a published municipal policy?

I did my best to determine whether open data was part of an open government policy for each municipality.

Does the municipality highlight ways that open data is being utilized by third-parties?

I wanted to understand if there is an active ecosystem of open data usage, if it is actively promoted on the municipality’s open data catalogue, and can be found or is being used by third-parties. In other words, is the presence of open data driving open government?

Does the municipality highlight dedicated staff who are responsible for open data?

Has the municipality created a position to oversee the open data catalogue and the community around it?

What is the total number of catalogue items?

While quantity isn’t always more important than quality, the total number of catalogue items can roughly represent a municipality’s investment in open data.

What type of license is published for open data?

Does the municipality impose restrictions on how the published data can be used?

I then set out with the following 11 types of common data that I would expect to be published:

  • 311 requests
  • Emergency services locations
  • Municipal budget
  • Building permits
  • Elections results
  • Library locations
  • Lobbyists
  • Parks and recreation programming or locations
  • Transit (keep reading to the end of this article for something interesting on transit open data)
  • Garbage collection schedules
  • Web analytics

To gather this information, I looked at the published open data catalogues that each municipality provides:

Montreal

Is open data part of a published municipal policy? Yes
Does the municipality highlight ways that open data is being utilized by third-parties? Yes
Does the municipality highlight dedicated staff who are responsible for open data? Yes
Total catalogue items? 143
What type of license is published for open data? Creative commons
311 requests? No
Emergency services locations? Yes
Municipal budget? Yes
Building permits? Yes
Elections results? Yes
Library locations? Yes
Lobbyists? No
Parks and recreation programming or locations? Yes
Transit? No
Garbage collection schedules? No
Web analytics? No

Toronto

Is open data part of a published municipal policy? Yes
Does the municipality highlight ways that open data is being utilized by third-parties? Yes
Does the municipality highlight dedicated staff who are responsible for open data? Yes
Total catalogue items? 156
What type of license is published for open data? Custom written
311 requests? Yes
Emergency services locations? Yes
Municipal budget? Yes
Building permits? Yes
Elections results? Yes
Library locations? Yes
Lobbyists? Yes
Parks and recreation programming or locations? Yes
Transit? Yes
Garbage collection schedules? Yes
Web analytics? Yes

Ottawa

Is open data part of a published municipal policy? Yes
Does the municipality highlight ways that open data is being utilized by third-parties? No
Does the municipality highlight dedicated staff who are responsible for open data? No
Total catalogue items? 109
What type of license is published for open data? Custom written
311 requests? Yes
Emergency services locations? No
Municipal budget? Yes
Building permits? Yes
Elections results? Yes
Library locations? Yes
Lobbyists? No
Parks and recreation programming or locations? Yes
Transit? Yes*
Garbage collection schedules? Yes
Web analytics? Yes

Mississauga

Is open data part of a published municipal policy? Yes
Does the municipality highlight ways that open data is being utilized by third-parties? No
Does the municipality highlight dedicated staff who are responsible for open data? No
Total catalogue items? *also includes text publications in catalogue 380
What type of license is published for open data? Custom written
311 requests? No
Emergency services locations? No
Municipal budget? No
Building permits? Yes
Elections results? No
Library locations? No
Lobbyists? No
Parks and recreation programming or locations? No
Transit? Yes
Garbage collection schedules? No
Web analytics? No

Brampton

Is open data part of a published municipal policy? Yes
Does the municipality highlight ways that open data is being utilized by third-parties? No
Does the municipality highlight dedicated staff who are responsible for open data? No
Total catalogue items? 1
What type of license is published for open data? Custom written
311 requests? No
Emergency services locations? No
Municipal budget? No
Building permits? No
Elections results? No
Library locations? No
Lobbyists? No
Parks and recreation programming or locations? No
Transit? Yes
Garbage collection schedules? No
Web analytics? No

Winnipeg

Is open data part of a published municipal policy? Yes
Does the municipality highlight ways that open data is being utilized by third-parties? No
Does the municipality highlight dedicated staff who are responsible for open data? No
Total catalogue items? 68
What type of license is published for open data? Custom written
311 requests? Yes
Emergency services locations? Yes
Municipal budget? Yes
Building permits? Yes
Elections results? No
Library locations? Yes
Lobbyists? Yes
Parks and recreation programming or locations? Yes
Transit? No
Garbage collection schedules? No
Web analytics? No

Calgary

Is open data part of a published municipal policy? No
Does the municipality highlight ways that open data is being utilized by third-parties? Yes
Does the municipality highlight dedicated staff who are responsible for open data? Yes
Total catalogue items? 114
What type of license is published for open data? Custom written
311 requests? No
Emergency services locations? Yes
Municipal budget? No
Building permits? Yes
Elections results? Yes
Library locations? No
Lobbyists? No
Parks and recreation programming or locations? Yes
Transit? Yes*
Garbage collection schedules? No
Web analytics? No

Edmonton

Is open data part of a published municipal policy? Yes
Does the municipality highlight ways that open data is being utilized by third-parties? No
Does the municipality highlight dedicated staff who are responsible for open data? No
Total catalogue items? 495
What type of license is published for open data? OpenGov
311 requests? Yes
Emergency services locations? Yes
Municipal budget? Yes
Building permits? Yes
Elections results? Yes
Library locations? Yes
Lobbyists? No
Parks and recreation programming or locations? Yes
Transit? Yes*
Garbage collection schedules? Yes
Web analytics? No

Vancouver

Is open data part of a published municipal policy? Yes
Does the municipality highlight ways that open data is being utilized by third-parties? No
Does the municipality highlight dedicated staff who are responsible for open data? No
Total catalogue items? 183
What type of license is published for open data? Custom written
311 requests? Yes
Emergency services locations? Yes
Municipal budget? No
Building permits? No
Elections results? No
Library locations? Yes
Lobbyists? No
Parks and recreation programming or locations? Yes
Transit? Yes
Garbage collection schedules? Yes
Web analytics? No

New York

Is open data part of a published municipal policy? Yes
Does the municipality highlight ways that open data is being utilized by third-parties? Yes
Does the municipality highlight dedicated staff who are responsible for open data? Yes
Total catalogue items? 1300
What type of license is published for open data? Custom written
311 requests? Yes
Emergency services locations? Yes
Municipal budget? Yes
Building permits? Yes
Elections results? Yes
Library locations? Yes
Lobbyists? Yes
Parks and recreation programming or locations? Yes
Transit? Yes*
Garbage collection schedules? Yes
Web analytics? No

Philadelphia

Is open data part of a published municipal policy? Yes
Does the municipality highlight ways that open data is being utilized by third-parties? Yes
Does the municipality highlight dedicated staff who are responsible for open data? Yes
Total catalogue items? 228
What type of license is published for open data? Custom written
311 requests? No
Emergency services locations? Yes
Municipal budget? Yes
Building permits? No
Elections results? Yes
Library locations? No
Lobbyists? No
Parks and recreation programming or locations? Yes
Transit? Yes*
Garbage collection schedules? No
Web analytics? No

Los Angeles

Is open data part of a published municipal policy? Yes
Does the municipality highlight ways that open data is being utilized by third-parties? Yes
Does the municipality highlight dedicated staff who are responsible for open data? No
Total catalogue items? 886
What type of license is published for open data? Custom written
311 requests? Yes
Emergency services locations? Yes
Municipal budget? Yes
Building permits? Yes
Elections results? Yes
Library locations? Yes
Lobbyists? Yes
Parks and recreation programming or locations? Yes
Transit? Yes*
Garbage collection schedules? Yes
Web analytics? No

Chicago

Is open data part of a published municipal policy? Yes
Does the municipality highlight ways that open data is being utilized by third-parties? No
Does the municipality highlight dedicated staff who are responsible for open data? No
Total catalogue items? 842
What type of license is published for open data? Custom written
311 requests? Yes
Emergency services locations? Yes
Municipal budget? Yes
Building permits? Yes
Elections results? No
Library locations? Yes
Lobbyists? Yes
Parks and recreation programming or locations? Yes
Transit? Yes*
Garbage collection schedules? No
Web analytics? No

Houston

Is open data part of a published municipal policy? No
Does the municipality highlight ways that open data is being utilized by third-parties? No
Does the municipality highlight dedicated staff who are responsible for open data? No
Total catalogue items? 162
What type of license is published for open data? None
311 requests? Yes
Emergency services locations? Yes
Municipal budget? Yes
Building permits? Yes
Elections results? No
Library locations? Yes
Lobbyists? Yes
Parks and recreation programming or locations? Yes
Transit? No
Garbage collection schedules? No
Web analytics? No

In the above audit, any municipality marked with a * indicates they are not publishing GTFS data

So here’s what I learned

Throughout the audit and analysis of municipal open data, I noticed there was a wide variety in the scope of catalogue that has been published. For larger municipalities like Los Angeles and New York, it’s obvious they have a catalogue that is significant and are leaders in this area.

Here are a few quick facts I uncovered:

  • 85% of municipalities audited provide parks and recreation data
    • This was the most popular open data catalogue item from the criteria I selected
  • Only 42% of the municipalities audited provide links to third party open data visualizations
    • Highlighting an active community can increase engagement and open data usage
  • Only 14% of municipalities share their web analytics data
    • While not key to open government, this is an easy to publish metric
  • Edmonton has the highest open data catalogue points “per capita”

On average, the municipalities audited had 362 open data catalogue items. (New York helped push that number higher with their impressive 1300 item catalogue).

I noticed that many municipalities are not publishing two types of data in their catalogue that could effectively increase transparency:

Budget

Exposing municipal budget information in the open data catalogue allows citizens and stakeholders to easily grab this data and use in their own way. Most municipal budgets are published in a PDF format, making it very difficult to do anything of value with the data. Offering this data in an open format is an effective win for municipalities.

Lobbyist

In the interest of transparency, several municipalities published a list of registered lobbyists. This increases accountability and opens the door to which companies are actively lobbying a city. Less than half of the municipalities audited published this information.

Transit and open data

While transit information is not necessarily critical for open government policy, I wanted to highlight this piece of the open data catalogue specifically. Most municipalities that I audited provide transit schedule information in their catalogue, yet half of them did not use the GTFS format. Static schedules are often published in a format that does not allow citizens and stakeholders to manage easily. By utilizing GTFS, transit data is exposed in a way that allows the creation of trip planner applications and real time analysis. We are about to launch a new website for BC Transit that heavily utilizes GTFS to provide an overall web experience that, in our opinion, is one of the best in the world. Stay tuned for details on this exciting project launch!

Next up

My next post in this series will be interviews with a number of open data managers and key stakeholders. Topics that I plan to cover will be lessons learned in launching the open data catalogue, their approach to open data, and some of the best ways that open data has been used in their municipality.

We can help!

What is your government or city doing to be more open? How are you leveraging open data to improve your open government initiatives? How is your open data being used? We can help answers these questions and more. Contact me if you’d like to continue the conversation!