Canada’s Open Data Pilot Project

I’m a little confused (some claim that I’m perpetually so). Yesterday (March 17, 2011), I read an announcement (David Eaves blog) about the Canadian federal government’s launch of its Open Data Pilot Project and on checking out the website discovered a backgrounder with this,

Government of Canada Open Data Portal

The Government of Canada produces and acquires data in areas such as health, environment, agriculture, and natural resources. The goal of the GC Open Data Portal is to create socio-economic opportunities and promote informed participation by the public by expanding access to federal government data. [emphasis mine]

The GC Open Data Portal is a collaborative effort amongst Government of Canada departments and agencies to provide access to data managed by the government that can be leveraged by citizens, businesses, and communities for their own purposes. The government will work towards making public data that is not sensitive in nature (i.e. data which is NOT personal, secret, or confidential) broadly available in reusable formats.

Government of Canada’s Open Data Pilot Project

The GC Open Data pilot project will enhance access to Government datasets by providing a “single-window” to data already published by individual departments and agencies on their public Websites.

If I understand it rightly, the pilot project represents a one-stop shop for a limited number of datasets whereas the portal links you to a larger number of government datasets where each must be approached separately.

I noted the reference to creating “socio-economic opportunities,”  a topic which forms the subtext for a lot of the discourse about ‘innovation’ (I’ve written about innovation any numbers of times most recently in the context of a submission to a public consultation, March 15, 2011 posting.)

I like the idea of open data since I believe that the public should have access to the research paid for through taxes. One quibble, I’m not so sure about the claims being made about “socio-economic opportunties.” For example, David Eaves, a public policy entrepreneur, open government activist and negotiation expert, mentions this in his June 22, 2009 posting,

Look no further than the City of Washington DC. It created a publicly available database of city collected and created data and asked local individuals and companies to use it. The result? A $50,000 dollar investment in changing processes and offering prize money has so far yielded $2.3M in value. That’s a 46 times return on investment in one year. [emphasis mine]

I started* looking for the research/data supporting the claim of a 46-fold return on investment in one year. I followed the link Eaves provided and ended up at the Apps for Democracy About webpage,

In the fall of 2008, DC’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer asked iStrategyLabs how it could make DC.gov’s revolutionary Data Catalog useful for the citizens, visitors, businesses and government agencies of Washington, DC. The Data Catalog contains all manner of open public data featuring real-time crime feeds, school test scores, and poverty indicators, and is the most comprehensive of its kind in the world.

Our solution was to create Apps for Democracy – a contest that cost Washington, DC $50,000 and returned 47 iPhone, Facebook and web applications with an estimated value in excess of $2,600,000 to the city. [emphasis mine]

It sounds exciting but no links were provided to data that would support the claim or give me information on how the numbers were derived. Shockingly, I did not stop here. Next was an Oct. 8, 2010 article by Eaves in BC Business online where he discusses the importance of open data and cites some examples from the City of Vancouver’s initiative,

Businesses have been analyzing government data for decades, to help refine property valuations or decide where to open a new office or store. Open data reduces the transaction costs of getting this and other types of information. No more letters, phone calls or special requests; just visit the website and download what you need. Bing Thom Architects, for example, recently used public data about Vancouver’s shorelines to examine the impact of a rising sea level on development in the city. No permission or requests were ever sought; they just took what they needed.

Open data also means new business opportunities by adding value to government data. In Vancouver, for example, two local web developers, Luke Closs and Kevin Jones, launched Vantrash, a website that digitizes the garbage schedule and sends users an email the day before their garbage day. It’s a useful service in a city where garbage day shifts every month.

In Eaves’ first example, Bing Thom’s company saves money by eliminating a bureaucratic process and presumably, the government employee is freed to do other work. Precisely, how does ‘moi’, the taxpayer benefit? Did the money saved by Thom’s company get used to generate a new job? Did the government employee start doing something that improves the situation in the city? In short, where is the data?

Where Vantrash (Eaves’ second example)  is concerned, they accept donations for their website. The website does not offer any data about this ‘socio-economic opportunity’ to  suggest that it generates enough revenue to offer its developers a wage. Note: If garbage collection is an issue for you and you live in Vancouver, check them out.

As I stated earlier, I like the open data principle. Taxpayers should have access to the data they have funded.

The ‘open data’ discussion bears a lot of similarity to the ‘innovation’ discussion. Both these of these concepts are intended to drive Canadians to explore and generate ‘socio-economic opportunities’. Both concepts generate a lot of excitement. And, I’d like to understand both concepts a little better.

* ‘start’ changed to ‘started’ for better grammar on Sept. 12, 2014.

1 thought on “Canada’s Open Data Pilot Project

  1. Pingback: Public access to publicly funded research; a consultation in the US « FrogHeart

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