What is Open Data?

A 4 minute read written by Dave September 24, 2013

Data points with question mark

Open Data is a hot topic for many municipalities, governments, and companies. But unless you're in the middle of the conversation it may not make sense what Open Data is, and why it's of any value.

The easiest example of how Open Data provides value to you and I is Google Transit. Google Transit is a service that allows a user to perform a search from one location to another, and instead of driving or walking directions, it provides transit directions. However what might not be obvious is that a municipality has to upload all of it's transit data through a standardized format for Google to be able to return these results.

If a municipality does not share its transit data, Google can't provide bus and transit information. Google has invested the time to build an application to help you catch a bus, but without the data from cities – it doesn't work. However it's not as simple as saying "yes" to allowing Google access to data – cities need to put in effort to format their transit information in a way that Google can work with. They then turn the data into meaningful information for you – like when the next bus will arrive. There is a cost and an effort to keeping this data up to date.  If a road is closed, construction occurs, or a bus is delayed, new data has to be provided to Google. The people and business processes required to keep this data current is not cheap, and has to be considered when a municipality is signing up for a service like Google Transit.

There are many sources of data that are interesting for citizens – some less common, but equally important. It could be your trash pickup schedule, or when the swimming pool is open, or the amount of garbage collected in a year.  It might be used by an individual to decide when to go swimming, or by a business to decide whether to expand.

The core issue with producing a catalogue of Open Data is it needs two things.  First, a lot of work from the government organizations to collect current data and format it in a consistent manner.  That sounds easy, but can actually be quite complex.  Often this information is coming from old computer systems that are not built to be exposed the web and significant effort is required to surface it to a data catalogue.  The second thing required is for clever developers to do useful things with the data sets to make them useful.  A raw data set of all swimming pool times – just having the informaiton about when they are open is not useful.  But when a developer takes that and give you a mobile app that detects your location, and shows you the closest pools and when they are open – now that's useful!

The more often municipal governments hear from citizens that Open Data is important the more energy they can put into bringing these data sets forward.  And since it requires cost and people effort to bring this data forward, describing value as a way the data can be used is the best way to convince a politician to allocate funds to supporting data.

Here are some of the innovative ways Open Data is being used across Canada and the US.  Review the list and see if there are ways you think Open Data can work for you.

Open Data Examples – how it’s used

Edmonton Police Service – Crime Mapping

We worked with the Edmonton Police Department to open up some complex data to release to the public.  This is information the police wanted to make available, but due to the nature of Police work, and to protect the victims of crime, we wanted to show where crimes were happening without showing exactly where crimes were happening.  We settled for using large round sticker-dots to show the general area where crimes were happening, so you could see clusters and patterns in neighbourhoods, without seeing the specific house or alley where an event occurred.  When we were prototyping through the dots, we first came up with icon based dots to show location and meaning in the same dot. My favourite was the early prototype where we had the hamburglar on a dot – wishing that one made it into the final release.

Edmonton Police - Open Data

HERMIS – Heritage Resources Management Information System

Yellow Pencil worked with the Cultural department of the Government of Alberta to expose the Register of Historic Places in Alberta. The Alberta Government has a rich and fantastic catalogue of historic places, but as an everyday person it’s hard to understand how to tap into this information.  We constructed an interface that allows you enter a city, or a route (ie: Calgary to Edmonton) and the tool pulls back all of the historic places near your city, or along the route you’re travelling, so you can plan a trip with stops at historic places in Alberta.

Alberta Register of Historic Places - Open Data

International Bike Share Map

Oliver O’Brien from Suprageography is a digital cartography expert, and has put together a global map of where bike share programs are in use. You can see where the bike share idea is trending internationally.  He’s got about 100 cities on display, and you can look at global patterns, or drill right into a city to see where people are getting from A to B on shared bikes.

Global Bike Shares - Open Data

How Open Data makes Data better

Jonathan Gray the Director of Policy and Ideas at the Open Knowledge Foundation has started an initiative to clean up mistakes by opening up data sets to the public.  If everyone can review data it’s easier to catch mistakes.  Those among us who love to pick at details (you know who you are) can review data sources and post when they find mistakes, so the original data source can be corrected.  Corrections such as:

"20,000 pregnant men in the UK? Clinicians from Imperial College London reviewing open statistical data from the UK’s National Health Service found that records said that 20,000 male patients required midwifery services between 2009 and 2010 - leading to rectification of the error, and improvement in data systems.”

If you have other ways open data is being used well, add a comment and we'll update our list!