Is public data the future of governance?

How free information can make government more accountable and transparent

by Aaron Wherry

PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON HAYTER

Garbage day in Vancouver is complicated. Because the schedule shifts each time a holiday occurs, your assigned day for pickup regularly changes. And because your assigned day regularly changes, it is easy to forget when you’re to put your refuse at the curb.

A little more than a year ago, David Eaves, a fresh-faced and effusive public policy activist, speculated on his blog that there had to be a way, perhaps something like an iPhone app, to make it easier to keep track.

He speculated one could, using public data from the city, establish a service that would eliminate forgetfulness and help make the city cleaner, healthier and more efficient. Two Vancouver computer programmers—Luke Closs and Kevin Jones—took up the project and within a few months, VanTrash was launched. A year later, 3,000 people use the free service to either update calendars on their computers or BlackBerries, or receive email reminders of approaching garbage days.

This, in its own way, might be the future of governance. A future in which the principles of free information, collaboration and connection allow citizens—and perhaps businesses as well—to provide what government does now in more efficient, useful ways. “You have information that in the hands of other people can become valuable,” explains Eaves. “That’s VanTrash. We can augment and extend what it is that you do.

And we can do it in simpler, cheaper and clever ways.” At the essence of theories like open data and open government is the belief that when information—from garbage routes to data on the efficiency of government services—is widely accessible, government is not only more accountable and transparent, but citizens are empowered to engage in public policy and create their own solutions.

Last fall, Vancouver launched an open data catalogue (data.vancouver.ca) meant to
compile and distribute municipal information. Cities such as Edmonton, Ottawa and Toronto are pursuing similar projects. Vancouver is now soliciting help for its green city agenda (talkgreentous.ca), while applications using data in Toronto make it easier to find available child care in your neighbourhood and plan trips on public transit. Everything from restaurant inspection reports to local festival events are being mapped.

One of Barack Obama’s first acts after his inauguration was to sign a memorandum of “transparency and open government.” Not only was information, where possible by law, to be readily disclosed and easily accessible, but Americans, he wrote, should be offered “increased opportunities to participate in policy-making.” Data.gov was established as a clearinghouse for data and, through challenge.gov, federal agencies and departments are now offering prizes for ideas to implement and improve services. Current challenges include a call to help improve school lunches and a post from NASA seeking a design for a fuel-efficient aircraft (top prize for the latter is US$1.5-million).

While the discussion in Ottawa has not turned so dramatically, there are signs of coming revolution. The federal public service utilizes GCPedia—a sort of internal Wikipedia—to facilitate collaboration and the sharing of information. Private initiatives run by interested and capable citizens like threehundredeight.com (which compiles public polling data) and punditsguide.ca (which aggregates data on riding demographics and election results) are opening up the political process to new scrutiny. Howdtheyvote.ca and openparliament.ca make it easy to track the votes and debates of MPs in the House of Commons.

Disclosed.ca compiles information on government contracts, while governmentexpenses.ca aims to do the same for the expenses of public officials.

Eaves, perhaps the movement’s leading preacher in Canada, sees big change as inevitable. He has launched datadotgc.ca, which collects already available data from the federal government, to demonstrate what might be possible. And he can foresee a day when a few clicks on a handheld device will be enough to access not only real estate information for a desired neighbourhood, but data on schools, hospitals, parks and pollutant sources nearby. He talks hopefully of doctors being able to access information on the environmental conditions of the communities they serve.

Information, in this populist, technical future, becomes the infrastructure of civil society. The result will be something like a better way to remember when the trash has to go out. “We’re not going to become a productive superpower because we build better roads,” he says. “What is going to do it is a million programs like VanTrash that make hundreds and thousands and millions of Canadians marginally more productive, but in 3,000 different ways.”




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Is public data the future of governance?

  1. Maybe garbage collection timing can be a question on the voluntary census. Like knowing your religion the federal government (read bureaucrats) needs to know when everybody's garbage is picked up so they can plan how many garbage men they need to hire.

    • you make so little sense it is impressive.

      • wonderfully profound way to express that sentiment!

        • thanks Stewart.

          • well just drinking the koolaid from the same bathwater on stilts ya know

  2. "there are signs of coming revolution"

    None of the examples indicate an increased willingness of the federal government to share information with the public.

    I agree that a revolution is coming, and only a seriously shortsighted government wouldn't want to get out in front of it.

    • or an ability to translate easier access to already available data to heightened accountability.

  3. GCPedia isn't *really* used by the government of Canada. Sure it's used by a few niche groups but I can never find anything useful there and almost nobody has heard of it. It's mostly turned in to some kind of hybrid of an internal wikipedia-geocities-LinkedIn-MySpace type thing for public servants to talk about themselves and paste documents. Most documents worked on public servants are Protected under security guidelines anyway.

  4. The privacy climate in Canada is so stifling we'll never use data to anything close to its potential. And politicians are only too happy to play up privacy fears; witness the PMs recent botching of the Census issue for a perfect example. Already, follow ups to certain medical trials aren't done in Canada because accessing patient records once the trial is over – even with all identifying information removed – just can't be done here. One wonders how much medical research we'll end up losing because of that.

  5. And I can tell you, in my conversations with federal bureaucracts, some of them senior, that privacy concerns are such a dominating factor in federal departments right now, that no such information revolution is pending. If anything, expect less information than you're currently getting.

    • Great article!

      We recently hosted a hack-a-thon with the City of Toronto leveraging there open data network (toronto.ca/open) and some of the applications and ideas we’re pretty incredible: http://www.miwhackathon.org.

      I think it is also important to consider crowd sourcing when discussing open data and transparent government. This model is illustrated nicely by the UrbanHero application developed at the hack-a-thon (www.UrbanHero.mobi).

      Hopeful Canada will lead the way in this great initiative!

  6. I am a believer that public data sharing can be the future of governance, but the technology competence can not drive the direction, only the the traffic. One needs government and public policy expertise to drive this technology and the traffic will come and benefit and communities will be empowered and more positively impacted.

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