The City of Calgary’s Open Data Pilot Project is set to begin this summer. (Despite recent attempts to quell the future of the project at a council committee meeting. More on that in a future post.)
As the project is being mapped out moving toward a launch date, it’s important to note that it will only be as successful as the usefulness of the data included in the catalogue. Poor design or minor mistakes can be overcome and corrected, but a lack of useful data almost certainly will lead to a failure of the pilot project. This more than anything will determine how many developers and academics make the choice to get involved and try to create something out of the information provided in the data catalogue. If there isn’t much data, or the data provided isn’t very useful, the project will crumble.
So in the interest of helping things get off on the right foot, I’ve put together a list of the data I would like to see included in the initial pilot catalogue this summer.
1. Community and Ward Boundaries
Most of the conversations I have had with people about open data revolve around being able to mashup City data, or data they have accumulated themselves, with mapping data of Calgary to be able to show a visual representation of their data set. Specifically what is required is information about areas of the City that programmers may want to segregate their data by. (For example, creating a map where neighbourhoods with the lowest income appear light yellow, those with the highest appear dark yellow.) In order to be able to do almost ANYTHING useful with any data the City might provide, programmers will NEED to have the GIS created data outlining the boundaries of neighbourhoods and wards. Without providing this information I’m confident the entire open data project will be nothing more than an interesting internal exercise for the City. This will be the tell-tale sign how serious they are taking transparency and accountability: if the City publishes the mapping data for neighbourhoods and wards they have given the pilot project a reasonable chance of success, if they don’t, then it’s fair to think they’re not taking it seriously.
The next three data sets I think are required because of the first two Laws of Open Government Data:
- If it can’t be spidered or indexed, it doesn’t exist
- If it isn’t available in open and machine readable format, it can’t engage
- If a legal framework doesn’t allow it to be repurposed, it doesn’t empower
2. Community Statistics
The City of Calgary produces and posts on it’s website statistics for every community in Calgary. There is a ridiculous amount of interesting and immensely usable data contained in these reports that are updated every few years after a census is completed. However unfortunately you can’t do much with the documents because they are PDFs. You can read each one individually and that’s about it. Right now it is impossible to do comprehensive comparisons because the information is not open and machine readable (and therefore doesn’t engage as much as it could). To make this data available in CSV format would greatly increase its usefulness and potential. The City has made it available to the public for a reason. Making it available as part of an open data catalogue would go a long way to fulfilling that reason.
3. Transit Schedules and Stops
Wow do Calgarians like to complain about Calgary Transit schedules and the Calgary Transit website. For the most part I disagree on the former, but I too find the website’s trip planning functionality cumbersome. You know what though? I say if whiners like me want to complain, then let them try to make something better. There are hundreds of applications online and on smart phones that do what the City is trying to do, but better and cheaper. This might be the conservative side of me coming out, but I say it’s time the City got out of the way and let these small business people show us why they are so good at what they do. If the City were to make transit schedules and stops available I’m confident that within a month we will see current app providers add Calgary to their rosters, thereby giving Calgaraians dozens of new – and more than likely better – ways of planning their Calgary Transit trips. (And yes, if they wanted to, Transit could even eventually partner with ones they liked, shut down their site, and save some major money this way.) They’ve already done this with Google so let’s give the small guys a chance too.
4. Crime Statistics and Locations
Again, all this information is available online for free to the public, but it is behind a proprietary wall. The City of Calgary Police I’m confident spent a lot of money making their “Crimes Web Mapping Application” that they didn’t need to. There are many crime map providers out there that would be happy to do this job for them, if only they made the data available in a machine readable format. The other – and more important reason – this data should be made available in a machine readable format (instead of only via the map application where it can only be read and not used) is so it can be mashed up with other data sets. If someone were to, for example, mash it up with the community statistics or locations of services we might be able to see some patterns emerging and create an even more effective police presence where potential crimes might occur in the future. The police do this currently using anecdotal evidence and personal/personnel experience, but open data allows for all kinds of potential permutations to be created by others that the police may not have the time or money to undertake. We already allow for this kind of work to happen via the most successful public engagement initiative undertaken by police of all time: 911. If they trust us to report the crimes, they should trust us to do something useful with the data too.
5. Fire, Police, Recreation Centre, Community Centre and School Locations
This one is almost a no-brainer. This information is surprisingly hard to find, yet it is so basic. I can only imagine how much more useful it would have been to have this information when we were house hunting a few years ago. (I’d love to see this info and the crime data mashed up with the Canadian Real Estate Association’s MLS.) But I can’t imagine how many other fantastic mapping systems may be created if this data were available in a consistent format. Simply listing the name of the building, it’s street address and it’s longitude/latitude coordinates should be more than enough, and easily put together by anyone at the City in an afternoon.
6. Development Permit Locations and Contact Information
It baffles me that the City publishes crime data in a map but not development permit locations on a map. Any citizen can go down to City Hall and get a copy of the permit for any construction occurring in the City, but this information isn’t published online for some reason. I would have thought it would be a privacy concern of some kind, but that doesn’t make sense either considering the name and phone number of each permit applicant is published on a blue board out front of every location during a two-week window before construction begins. (I think it is also included in the newspaper advertisements during this window too.) This would be great information to have available in a useful format like CSV and KML instead of just a document file at the planning office and on a sandwich board on the street. As a community association president, this would certainly cut down on phone calls at the very least! And would be helpful in keeping track of all development going on in our neighbourhood.
It is important to note that ALL of these suggestions involve ONLY data that is already publicly available, but just in a format that limits the data’s usability and usefulness (such as PDF or proprietary software solutions). The good news about this is there will be many less hoops to jump through in order to get the data included in a pilot. I can think of many other data sets I’d like to see available, but let’s start with the low hanging fruit.
There is one data set that is not currently available to the public that I would like to see included in the initial data catalogue however that is not currently. It’s not really “data” per se, but I think it is something, which should be made available:
7. City of Calgary Contracts
I outline my rationale for this request in this blog post. It probably won’t be in the initial data catalogue, and that’s okay, but the conversation and process required to make this data available in the very near future should begin now. Otherwise it could be years before we see something so simple made available to citizens.
I’m confident if we can get each of these items included in the Pilot Project, the City has done everything in it’s power to ensure it’s success.
If any readers have suggestions for other data you would like to see, you’re welcome to put it in the comments below, but you should probably send it directly to the City. (I’m just an interested citizen with no direct connection to the pilot project.)
Today Naheed Nenshi has announced he will be running for mayor. On Monday we can expect a similar announcement from Bob Hawkesworth. The big winner from these announcements? Ric McIver.
As recently as yesterday, things were not looking great for Mr. McIver’s chances of becoming Calgary’s next mayor. As each mayoral candidate announced (Joe Connelly, Jon Lord, Craig Burrows) observers could see small parts of McIver’s assumed lead chipping away. Once Kent Hehr announced, enough had been chipped away that we were looking at a very real two way fight between McIver and Hehr.
With Nenshi and Hawkesworth entering the race, it’s fair to assume Mr. Hehr is now the one experiencing the chipping away of potential voters from his target group. It’s my guess that when it all plays out, enough will have been chipped away to return Mr. McIver to a healthy leading position once again.
What are your thoughts?
Cross posted to calgarypolitics.com
The process of transparency and accountability is one we often talk about – certainly some of the mayoralty candidates have put it at the top of their list of election issues – but rarely take steps to do much about. Often the idea boils down to “people need to vote to hold politicians accountable” or “our politicians need to work harder to hold administration to task”. But both of these solutions are simple-minded and are just putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound.
The fraud allegations unfolding at the City of Calgary should be surprising to no one. Our band-aid is not working on this gunshot wound.
I applaud the City for investigating better regulations to the procurement process, but even that will not be enough to heal the wound. It’s just enough to stop the bleeding.
Have you, as an owner of the City of Calgary corporation, ever read a single contract the company you are co-owner of has tendered? I’m guessing no. If you wanted to read one, who would you call? I’m guessing you have no idea. If you got through to someone to ask them about a contract, what are the odds they would be willing to send you a copy? I’m guessing slim to none.
If you co-owned any other business, would you stand for that kind of treatment by your staff and their policies?
I’m a big proponent of Open Data because of situations exactly like this. If we have ease of access to information (transparency), staff and elected officials will be less likely to try to take advantage of the hiding in the shadows and avoid potential fraudulent activities (accountability). You need one to have the other however.
Here’s my proposed solution to avoid this sort of harmful – or perceived harmful – activity in the future: make all City of Calgary contracts available online. All of them.
Not only does this kind of transparency lead to better accountability on both the City’s and public’s sides of the equation, but I also believe it can lead to more cost efficient services and better value as well.
If you, as a contractor, are considering bidding on a project, and you can visit the City’s website and see what other previously successful vendors bid on similar projects, you now have an idea as to what your potential competition might bid and what has resonance with the City. Arming vendors with this kind of knowledge increases the likelihood they will attempt to add value to their bid on the new project either by offering the service more efficiently (read: cheaper) or by adding benefit to their bid that may be attractive to the City in ways they had not previously considered (delivery schedules, quality, etc).
I know it’s often comfortable living in the shadows because when no one can see what you’re doing you don’t have to constantly be on your toes. I get that. But the benefits to opening up the data and being more transparent does not have to be a negative experience. Accountability often has more positive outcomes for the person being held to account than negative. It’s time we stop worrying about the negative, embrace the positive, and be willing to let the public help build a better City through accountablity.
Let’s start simple. Please post the contracts online.
In follow up to my last post where I asked 2010 municipal election candidates to tell us ‘how’ they will accomplish their objectives instead of just ‘what’ those objectives would be, I thought it was only fair that I take the first ‘kick at the can’ so to speak.
On Friday – almost ironically the same day I published my post – the Calgary Sun published an advertorial by Ald. Ric McIver. The theme of the piece was Ald. McIver’s vision for what he would do if elected mayor of Calgary. I can think of no better place to start off the ‘How?’ campaign, than with that piece.
Below is the article taken from Ric McIver’s campaign site. Text in bold are my comments.
CITY HALL MUST OPEN ITS EARS
Calgary Sun - May 5, 2010
By Ric McIver
As a candidate for mayor, I would like to suggest a new way forward.
I propose city government should boldly embrace our city’s growth, harnessing the vitality, commitment to progress and entrepreneurship of Calgarians in managing the challenges of a city that can and should become a model to other Canadian cities. [Here is Ald. McIver's stated goal. An excellent start. The rest of the missive lists the objectives to accomplish this goal.]
I believe we need a mayor who believes in his fellow citizens, who listens to and consults with them [How?], who knows they are the actual builders of this community.
I believe we need a mayor who sees leadership as a team effort to be shared with all members of the community. [Can't really ask 'how' on this one because it is listed as a quality of the mayor not something the mayor would actually do.]
And I believe we need a mayor who is prepared to re-examine the way city government does things, creating a free flow of information and ensuring citizen and employee participation play an integral role in defining and creating the future of our great city. [How would one go about doing this?]
Most of all, I believe Calgary needs a mayor who will do everything in his power to ensure working families share in the growth and prosperity of this city. [How? What is 'everything in his power'. As a side note, I understand sharing in 'prosperity' but how does one share in 'growth'? I digress...]
So I propose to you the vision of a flourishing, competitive, entrepreneurial city that welcomes working people, small and big business alike, while offering an affordable, high quality of life for all of its citizens [How?] — all of which can and will be realized within a framework of cost control, accountability and transparency. [More objectives, okay. But how will you be accountable? How will you be transparent?]
Calgary will be open for business. We will cut red tape and implement policies that will make Calgary the place to build businesses and homes. [How?]
We will look after the environment. [How? This line especially seems staggeringly in need of detail.]
When a company wants to move employees here, their families will know Calgary has a great arts, culture, sports and recreation scene. [I assume we are not talking about implanting chips in peoples heads when they land at the airport to beam messages directly to them. So if not that, then how?]
Where we fall short, we will work with the private sector to come up to standard. [How will you know when you've fallen short?]
We will work with our partners in the Alberta government to complete the ring road and, yes, that will include the southwest portion. [I don't need if we need to ask 'how' here. We know how the City works with the Province.]
We must have and we will have proper access to the airport. [Before I can ask 'how' I have to ask: define 'proper'?]
In the short term, we will review downtown parking policies that make for the most expensive and least convenient parking situation of almost any city in Canada. [This is a great tactic. Two thumbs up for listing one.]
In the longer term, we will work toward spreading out jobs so they are not just concentrated in three areas of the city. [I guess 'work toward' is vague enough it's hard to realistically ask 'how'.]
We need to look to a future where people aren’t going to the same, limited areas at the same time each day, causing congestion and frustration. [How?]
We will re-build trust in our relationship with the provincial government. [How?]
We will strive for a core transit strategy that will create a zone in the centre of Calgary where people will have a real choice about whether to leave their cars at home. [Another tactic. Excellent.]
We will bring together the development industry, sustainability groups, city council and the administration for thoughtful, realistic discussion on building the Calgary of the future. [Didn't we just do this with PlanIt?]
We will work with all parties interested, including the private sector, to support the 10-year plan to eliminate homelessness. [Define 'work with' and 'support'; then we can talk about How?]
A vibrant, competitive Calgary that flourishes, with quality services for all, with taxes that are fair must be our shared purpose. [How?]
Our promise that Calgary is the most welcoming place in all of Canada for ambitious, hardworking people should be more than just rhetoric. [Agreed. It should be more than just rhetoric. So: How? Because without that it's just rhetoric.]
We should not only expect, we must demand a city government that listens to and recognizes the role of its citizens in decision-making. [How will the City encourage/do this?]
This is by no means an exhaustive list of goals but these are goals that must be at the forefront of any candidate’s platform, and I promise you, they are at the top of mine. [There's more objectives still? How about a tactics listing? I hope there is one of those too.]
I will provide that needed leadership to see these goals through to reality. [How?]
That’s why I am asking for your support and for your vote to become Calgary’s next mayor.
So there you go. Now it’s your turn. And by your turn I mean 1) you, dear reader, should go and ask the same questions of other candidates, and 2) you, Ald. McIver, are welcome to provide some details once you have them ready. I’ll happily post them!
Note: The ‘No’ How post series should not be seen as an endorsement or condemnation of any candidate. They are meant only to encourage the peeling back of layers of rhetoric – purposeful or otherwise – in an attempt to have candidates publicly state how they plan to accomplish their goals should they be elected. No candidate is meant to be harmed in the writing of these posts.
As election time approaches we are going to hear a LOT of potential politicians trying to articulate their vision for the City. They’ll be laying out their goals, and some may even layout a few objectives for how they will accomplish their goal. But let’s never forget that the life of an alderman or mayor is rarely about the big picture during their day-to-day work.
This makes sense, because we can’t all be thinking big picture all the time. We must also plan for what it is we will do each and every day to ensure we are heading toward that goal.
This is the basics of any good strategy: Goal > Objectives > Tactics.
The goal and objectives for the future of Calgary are pretty much laid out in the dozens of planning documents the City has produced. Those documents range from the most recent round of visioning in Plan It, to the big picture 100-year vision laid out in Imagine Calgary.
But what we really need are tactics: How do we get from here, to there?
(It is almost redundant of us to ask candidates what their ‘vision’ is for City, when this has already been clearly spelled out by those that have came before us. In a way, asking about their vision is asking entirely the wrong question. Again, the question should be how do we achieve the objectives we as citizens previously agreed to?)
So to that end, I invite all candidates to articulate their tactics for how they will accomplish the objectives laid out in these documents – or even how they will achieve the objectives they themselves are laying out for the City. It’s great to have goals, but unless you can tell me how you actually plan to achieve them, you’re not going to get my vote.
At the same time, and probably more importantly, I invite all citizens to accept the responsibility to not be swayed by big picture promises and instead hold every candidate’s feet to the fire by asking the simplest of questions: How? How do you plan on doing that?
This is not complicated, but it needs to be done. Tell me how you plan to make any of these dreams become a reality and I can get behind you and help you make them real. If you just tell me what your dreams for the City are, all we can do is nod in general agreement. Tell me ‘how’ and you’ll get engagement. Don’t and we are only living off your charisma. Charisma is not enough to build a great City that works for us all. We are 1 million strong, and we want to help. So articulate to us how we can help you.