How open data came to be in Calgary

Monday, March 22nd, 2010 | Calgary, Politics

At this today’s Regular Meeting of Council, Calgary City Council passed their Open Data Motion.

Obviously I’m beyond excited about the City of Calgary transitioning into a period of openness and accountability. Passing an open data motion should be seen as a gigantic step forward in rethinking how a government interacts with citizens and who really runs ‘the show’. The people.

I thought I’d take advantage of this moment to shine the light on how this motion came to be.

On May 27 I saw something come across the CBC Spark Twitter feed that caught my eye. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, in writing this post I am able to go back and see exactly what it said: “Just posted full interview with @andreareimer about open data, open source, and cities that think like the web: “. It was that bit about cities thinking like the web that interested me. What did it mean? So I clicked the link.

After listening to Nora Young’s interview with Vancouver city councilor Andrea Reimer I thought to myself, “Why can’t Calgary have something like that? What’s stopping us?” The next day on May 28 I had a coffee meeting with Calgary Alderman Joe Ceci and the former president of my community association. Following the meeting Joe offered me a ride to work downtown. We got to chatting and I mentioned the project Vancouver is undertaking. He was interested but it was nothing more than a conversation during a car ride. On June 6 I was having a coffee with Ald. Brian Pincott on Olympic Plaza to talk about ward boundaries and how things had gone so wrong. Hoping to introduce something of a little more hopeful tone to the conversation I mentioned the Spark interview and the Vancouver Open Government project. He too was interested.

Somewhere in there I came up with the ludicrous idea that I should get these two aldermen to talk with their Vancouver counterpart. And it just so happened that the Federation of Canadian Municipalities was meeting in Whistler the next week. Knowing both Ald. Ceci and Ald. Pincott were attending I contacted Cllr. Reimer via Twitter. She too was attending. So I sent the three an email saying they should get together while in Whistler. (I also attempted to include Cllr. Don Iverson of Edmonton, but as he just had a baby he told me he would not be attending. We talked more about the project however when I drove up to Edmonton to attend TransitCamp on May 30. Edmonton, as it turned out, followed Vancouver and Calgary’s lead and actually got their open data motion passed months ago.)

After a couple friendly emails over the next couple weeks I found out they did not get a chance to meet up with Cllr. Reimer in Whistler but Ald. Ceci met with another Vancouver councilor. Toward the end of June Ald. Ceci and Pincott had met with the city’s IT department and the text of a motion was being drafted.

On November 17 I heard from Heather Reed-Fenske, the City’s Manager, eGovernment Strategy with some of the direction they were heading with the research for the report. She wanted to chat to update me and gain any insight I might have around the issue. On December 18 we met for coffee; where she joked she had been in her job for all of one week when City Council passed the notice of motion I recommended, she’d been working on almost nothing since, and thus hated me. We talked about several different things that other jurisdictions have done and I’m happy to see much of our conversation was incorporated into the final report.

The Report was being prepared for December 2009, but Heather and her team asked for an extension to the February 10 meeting of the Standing Policy Committee on Finance and Corporate Services where it was to be debated, edited and (hopefully) recommended to move to Council for a full vote. They needed the extra time to do more research. As I told Heather at the time: “It’s okay. It’s not a race, it’s a marathon. Just finishing is what’s important.” As February approached Ald. Pincott and Ceci realized they would both be in Ottawa for a conference that week and so asked for another delay until March 10 because, as the movers of the original motion, all agreed they should be in attendance.

The March 10 meeting was painful for me to watch. I had to be at work that morning and could only get away from my desk for an hour from 10am to 11am. This meant I missed the public input window and arrived in time for the last two thirds of the debate and the vote – which passed with only Ald. Chabot, Connelly, and Hodges against. It was painful because I just wanted to jump up and answer all the aldermen’s questions. Instead I had to rely on the answers of Heather and her boss – both relative newcomers to the issues surrounding open data. I knew I couldn’t answer questions about the City’s implementation of open data nearly as well as they could, but there were many other questions about what other jurisdictions have done and what the purpose of open data was that I could have answered that would have helped. (For example, one major issue brought up by more than one alderman was around the risk of hackers. What they did not understand is that open data eliminates the need for the majority of hacking because open data is giving the information away. Not to mention open data 1.0 does not open a portal to actual databases. All the information pulled for a data catalogue is exported information with no additional danger of a hacker access to the database.) I wished I would have been able to give them a streamlined version of the open data presentation I did at DemoCamp on January 26.

After all that the motion came to council today and following another debate, which I understand was once again fraught with misunderstanding about what open data is and what it does, it passed with a vote of 10 to 4 with Ald Hodges, Connelly, Fox-Mellway & Chabot voting against it. (Mar was absent.)

I know this might sound a little corny, but I’m elated at this moment. After almost one full year of work, today a motion brought forward by a single citizen passed City Council. A motion that could be the beginning of forever changing the way the City of Calgary thinks about the way it interacts with citizens and how democracy can work in Cowtown.

THAT is a big deal.

And I’m happy to have been able to play my small part in the process.

I can’t wait to play a part in the next steps of the process too.

A collection of my previous posts on open data coming to Calgary:

Open Data presentation at DemoCamp

Calgary open data report delayed

Open Government starts to expose what’s in the shadows

Brian Pincott on Open Data at Calgary City Hall

Help ensure Calgary’s “Open City” initiative is framed in the right light

“Open Government” coming to Calgary?