Municipal Election 2010

Most Candidates Clueless About Open Public Data

Looking at the detailed responses, it is clear that even most of the candidates who agree with open public data don't really understand what the concept means.

By Ryan McGreal
Published October 21, 2010

this article has been updated

The Open Source City is a new approach to democratic oversight and governance. The model is simple and powerful: governments endeavour to provide public data in a format that is findable, sharable, human-readable, and machine-readable.

The data becomes a platform on which citizens can engage in more detailed analysis, identify opportunities, share ideas and information, and foster a culture of greater public participation in the political process. It also provides an anchor around which developers can collaborate, create new tools and build value.

More broadly, the open data movement aims to bring the values of open source development - open standards, mutual sharing of information and resources, direct accountability through peer oversight, non-hierarchical organization - to governance.

The open public data movement is already gaining traction is cities like Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver, as well as various levels of government in the UK and USA.

Last year, I wrote an essay calling on Hamilton to embrace open data. A follow-up sketched out how we might realize this opportunity. It generated a lot of interest, but the prevailing culture in City Hall is still largely opposed to sharing data.

As part of its election coverage, RTH posed the following question to candidates:

Some cities have committed recently to publishing their public data in an open format that citizens can directly access. Should Hamilton pledge to become an "open source city"? Why or why not?

Of the 83 active candidates, 59 or 71.1% responded. Of the 59 respondents, 56 or 94.9% agree. The rest disagree or are undecided or ambivalent.

However, looking at the detailed responses, it is clear that even most of the candidates who agree don't really understand what the concept means.

Open Data Means Participation

Most candidates seem stuck on the narrow notion that open data means the city posts reports on its website. Only a few demonstrated a real understanding of the open data concept in their detailed responses.

Mahesh Butani, a candidate for Mayor, argues that Hamilton needs leadership that "implicitly understands and inherently values 'open source' thinking."

Andrew Haines, a candidate for Mayor, sees open data as a step toward collective governance in which citizens vote directly on policy issues.

Brian McHattie, a candidate for Ward 1, notes that public data "will allow for more community-based data crunching and interpretation which can be shared with Councillors as they make decisions and used in the community for purposes deemed important by citizens."

Matt Jelly, a candidate for Ward 2, argued that open source data "sparks innovation by making information accessible", "enhances communication, opens opportunities for service delivery improvements in true partnership with the business and citizen communities", and allows citizens to "use City data to provide feedback to Council on key community issues."

James Novak, a candidate for Ward 2, proposes a pilot project in his ward to let residents actively engage public information, discuss issues in an online forum and vote directly on proposals.

Paul Tetley, a candidate for Ward 3, says open data will "allow software developers to create applications that serve and benefit the needs of the city, and residents" and "release large of amounts of the information generated by the city, which can then be presented in a searchable and usable format." He adds that this could "stimulate Hamilton's software development industry through application development."

Ed Pecyna, a candidate for Ward 6, argues that "Better informed citizens make better decisions" and "Easily accessed and well organized public data provides impetus for potential innovation" that can enable "more cost effective and better delivery of city services."

Brad Clark, a candidate for Ward 9, advocates "Proactive Disclosure" and a policy of "Access by Design", "where City held information is proactively released to the public as opposed to the current policy of reacting to freedom of information requests."

Not Open to Open Data

While most candidates assumed "open data" means "transparency" in the sense of making reports available, a few were ambivalent, skeptical or plain confused.

Marvin Caplan, a candidate for Ward 2, seemed stuck on the word "pledge" and spent his response referring to nuclear submarines, feeding pigeons, and second-hand smoke. He wrote, "I could spend a few days reading about and discussing the open source issue with proponents and opponents", but it's clear he didn't.

Ian Deans, a candidate for Ward 2, admitted, "I'm not sure what the phrase "open source city" means in the context of municipal government." He promised to "carefully review it".

David Mitchell, a candidate for Ward 11, responded, "I thought it was" and noted times when releasing information "can create huge lawsuits against the City".

Lloyd Ferguson, a candidate for Ward 12, responded, "I believe we are already an 'open source city'."

Neil Bos, wants "to hear some discussion about the issue before I decide to take a stance." He believes some information "can be explosive" and that the city could achieve "improved transparency over the next decade, but it will be a long haul."


Update: this article originally stated that Marvin Caplan is a candidate for Ward 1. He is actually a candidate for Ward 2. (Thanks to UrbanRenaissance for pointing out the error. You can jump to the changed paragraph.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 11:34:03

Marvin Caplan, a candidate for Ward 1...

Actually he's running in ward 2, he's the former councillor from ward 1

Doesn't change how clueless his response was, but I wanted to point out that mistake.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 21, 2010 at 11:38:18

Thanks for pointing out the error. I've corrected it.

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 12:23:22

I'll be honest I didn't know what you were talking about. I'm not sure I do even after reading your article. Is it a system that allows easier navigation or are you suggesting that its easier to manipulate the information if you are a techie. If its simply about navigation for the masses, great, go for it. If its about allowing a select group of citizens to more easily manipulate information, forget it.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted October 21, 2010 at 12:34:42

@turbo - every academic-track high school student over the age of 12 knows how to use Excel these days. Claiming that open data is for some kind of techno-priesthood is rank anti-intellectualism.

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 12:49:45

Sure everyone knows excel. Not everyone can grab info from open source. Hey I'm trying to say I don't understand. Enlighten me rather than mock me. Tell me what exactly is involved and how everyone can use it. As I understand the concept you'd need to be pretty savy to import data into even a commercial spreadsheet program. Am I wrong?

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By Watcher (anonymous) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 12:53:12

Better explained in article in today's G&M:
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/open-data-comes-to-ottawa/article1766691/

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 12:53:31

turbo,

The open source city concept basically means that the city would publish data (like crime stats, traffic rates, transit routes and timings, etc) online in a format that is free and open to access by any person or computer. It would allow individuals to just study this data or to create public applications that use this data for anything from creating mash up maps to a free app that tells you when the next bus is coming. The data itself could take any human or machine readable form (i.e. a text table that could be cut and pasted into excel, actual excel tables, and other open source formats that anyone can learn how to read from) check out Vancouvers Open Data Page for more examples.

It's not about manipulating data, but rather using it as a basis for further study and to create useful tools for anyone living, working or visiting the city.

Comment edited by UrbanRenaissance on 2010-10-21 11:57:38

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By Andrea (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 13:00:16

That is the the simpliest, most easily understandable explanation I have ever read. Thanks UR.

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 13:01:45

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 13:08:12

creating public applications is what you see as a benefit but what I view as something we should be very wary of.

Why are you wary of a concept like this?

We aren't talking about names, addresses or other private info. The data sets would be things like bike path locations, transit lines or sewer lines. And again this data is not read/write, its actual data published by the city if someone outside were to manipulate it for nefarious reasons it wouldn't be fed back to the source and disseminated.

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 13:10:51

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 13:11:49

"Why are you wary of a concept like this?" Because turbo is all about negativity and finding reasons to oppose any postitive change.

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By jason (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 13:20:58

just in the area of transit alone this would be a HUGE benefit in Hamilton. The HSR still can't even put together a decent website, let alone apps and real time info.

I'm confident if the info was available, the public would do it, and do it far better than the HSR. I'm so sick of calling Bus Check like it's the 80's still.

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 13:22:32

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Comment edited by turbo on 2010-10-21 12:25:11

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 13:30:22

Yeah because young programmers, hackers and tinkerers in Hamilton are already towering overlords hoarding all the power for themselves. Oops no that's the old powerful people who control the infromation today and can afford to pay professionals to manipulate it for them. Open data means a lot more people have a lot more access to better info, who already believe in sharing and civic duty and sticking up for the under dog. Why don't you think citizens should be allowed to have the same access to data as professionals and well-connected consultants and back room supporters have today?

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 13:33:12

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Comment edited by turbo on 2010-10-21 12:35:17

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 13:33:48

I went to the vancouver site. Not helpful at all. I don't have the programs to run the files and even if I did it would take months for me to learn them

Well at this point I'm probably getting trolled, but for anyone who is actually interested here's a list of the file types on the Vancouver website and the programs that will open them. All the programs are very simple to use and there are thousands of tutorials online that can show you how to do everything from just looking, to creating mash up maps, to integrating this data with a website.

File-type - Program(s)

CSV - WordPad, Notepad (both come with Windows), Excel, and any other spreadsheet or word processing program (like the FREE OpenOffice)

XLS - Microsoft Excel, OpenOffice, the free XLS Viewer from Microsoft

DWG - Any major CAD software SolidWorks, AutoCad, SketchUp (free), or any of the free DWG viewers that can be found

KML - GoogleEarth (free)

SHP - ShapeViwer (free)

ECW - ERDAS ER Viewer (free)

MR SID - TatukGIS Viewer (free)

Note: All these programs are for Windows PCs, there are similar programs designed for Mac's and those using other operating systems.

Comment edited by UrbanRenaissance on 2010-10-21 12:41:36

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 13:39:09

The very last thing I want to see is the HSR leave such critical planning to the private sector.

I don't think you understand turbo; the HSR would still be responsible for planning the routes, they would just be publishing that data online so everyone can view it.

Again the data flow is only one way, city data goes out to developers but any modified data does not flow back into the city to be used. Any app that's purposely created to misinform wouldn't be worth using so no one would bother with it. In the same way no one would bother reading a newspaper filled with misinformation.

Simply put, people who are not computer savy will not be able to access this info and those that are will.

As its stands right now no one has access at all.

Comment edited by UrbanRenaissance on 2010-10-21 12:45:02

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 21, 2010 at 13:46:22

In the same way no one would bother reading a newspaper filled with misinformation.

This reminds me of the local media panel discussion I attended early this year, in which the other panelists all insisted that their role as professional journalists is to act as gatekeepers and protect citizens from bad information - hence assuming that citizens can't figure this out for themselves.

In fact, their real role as professionals is to protect their shareholders from losses by ensuring that their capital-intensive publishing investments are used to produce content people will actually pay for. Generally speaking, citizens can recognize - and even produce - quality all by themselves.

Open data is based on the idea that citizens as a group possess the expertise and ambition to do innovative, useful things with information if they can get it in a form that allows for analysis, combination and sharing. (Community media is based on the same idea.)

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By jason (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 13:51:05

In the same way no one would bother reading a newspaper filled with misinformation.

If only...

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 13:54:03

urban. Everyone has access now. Its just that its equally hard for you and I to figure it out.

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 14:00:34

"it just shifts the elitism to another group, one which you are a memeber of." The only group I'm a member of is "the public" I'm not a programmer but I know how to read and I know I'd rather have more citizens looking at this stuff not less.

Pretty sure you're just trolling now so no more troll-food from me.

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 14:11:47

urban. Everyone has access now. Its just that its equally hard for you and I to figure it out.

That's just not true, a lot of the data that available from Vancouver is not on Hamilton's website and the info that is available is locked down using proprietary formats that you have to buy software to work with (if you can access the original data at all).

The point of open source city is to make a centralized repository to make it as easy as possible to disseminate the raw data that people can use to make their own apps and studies. This isn't about elitism or giving one group power, its about providing information about the city to its residents. Anyone can access this data and anyone can learn how to use it. That's the power of the internet.

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 14:14:01

Not trolling at all. In fact what I'm trying to do is get an understanding of what it is that open source city is all about and debate the merits and drawbacks. We fundamentally disagree on whether an unfettered community based media is a good or bad thing. I look at this site and see that its quite civil although very often opinions are not based on fact. Reading the mainstream papers feedback features and you'll see the same type of opinion not based on fact and frankly quite often its not civil nor is it helpful to the community. The thing that these types of forums have brought us are a hardening of positions rather than the hoped for goal of sharing and the resulting compromise.

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 14:16:07

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted October 21, 2010 at 14:17:27

Remember that most of the Internet is powered by the software equivalent of pro-bono work. That's what "Open Source" generally refers to (the usage in municipal terms is a bit of a confusion, really).

When given a software problem, a programmer will "scratch the itch" and make a solution for their own usage. Then, because one of the chief virtues of a programmer is hubris, they will unleash their creation upon the world... sometimes for cash, often as a free program, but also often as an "open source" program - that is, a program that they have practically renounced ownership of and have provided the legal and technical means for other programmers to modify and redistribute. Another programmer will find the first person's solution inadequate their needs, and will augment it as he or she sees fit. And so on ad nauseum until you have a massive pile of code, duct-tape, bubble-gum and hacks that implements, say, the entire Microsoft Office suite or a complete enterprise-level database management system or a real-time strategy videogame framework or whatever.

Noteworthy examples of this process include the Firefox web browser that your IT guy probably recommended you use instead of IE, the Linux-based operating system that hosts the website you're commenting on, and the programming language that was used to implement the site itself.

Now, the idea of the open source city is that by making this data available in the purest form... refined only in that it is converted into standard-compliant formats... it allows hobbyists, professionals, and even highschool students to "scratch the itch" and serve their own needs from the data, hopefully in a manner. The Vancouver website is a particularly spectacular implementation of it in that they provide Google Maps pages for the spatial data, which means that you don't even need software to consume it - you can just look at it in a useful visual form... it's just that by providing the raw data, people can produce better displays or synthesis or applications of the data.

It's also better for that holy grail of capitalism, low-barrier-to-entry-competition. You don't have to be Google to make a route-planning system in Vancouver - the mapping information is available to anyone who can apply an A* algorithm (you don't have to know how A* works to apply it, just that it finds the shortest distance between two points on a graph) and can make a route-planning app that incorporates bike routes and alleyways. And so can anybody else, so you may as well give it away for free.

Having data available in a form meant for programs and not just eyeballs means that you and me get new information-based services for free, because it eliminates the barrier to entry and drives the price-point to zero.

Your processing of the data can be simple excel spreadsheets, or can be complete applications. By providing this information freely and up front, it empowers everyone to do as much with it as they are able.

Comment edited by Pxtl on 2010-10-21 13:18:39

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 14:23:12

Right now, for me, I'm down to three candidates that are getting my vote. Matt Jelly, Jason Farr and Martinus Geleynse. Marvin Caplan is certainly not getting my vote after an incredibly unimpressive and disorganized house visit and for blatantly talking over other candidates in the Ward 2 debate.

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By LauraF (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 14:38:39

An open-source format so that those that are interested can read the data and subsquently become better informed, with the ability to form their own opinions, and gee - maybe even talk to other people about what they thought sparking conversation- would be a welcome improvment in my opinion.

I'd guessitmate that around 8/10's of people that are frustrated with something "the city" did, plans to do, or should do is allieviated once they have the facts.

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By mike_sak (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 16:23:04

As a student of urban planning attending university at Buffalo, I am using a lot of GIS technology. Surprisingly, there is a lot of data available for the states. It's remarkable to see how well the data is organized and presentable for direct public access for New York State. I am trying to do a project related to Hamilton, and it seems that a lot of the data for Canada, (census data, boundary and shapefiles, etc.) is a lot less organized, obscure, and at a heavy cost.

It's incredible how effective GIS technologies are in informing the public on city issues.

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By marvincaplan (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 22:21:50

Ryan, Ryan, Ryan,are you so anxious to see that I am not re-elected? Let's try again. There are huge advantages to open source data in helping to inform the community of what a government is doing. It is vital that citizens can critique the information. The disadvantage is the flow from the public to Councillors who sometimes see an opportunity to pander to strong minority opinions that have little or no significance. As evidenced by my record, I respect and work with minorities, those with minority opinions, and those who wish to offer contrary opinion to information presented. That was, I thought the context of Open Source Data, a two way stream. That sort of two way stream has led in the past to Hamilton banning Nuclear Subs from our Harbour and to banning the feeding of pigeons. As you know, I am always responsive to questions from you and my constituents. So if I didn't understand or respond to your question, you could have clarified. Now, where is Raise the Hammer on support to my three decade long fight to have overlapping jurisdictions by every level of government and even within city government. The Feds include Burlington in Hamilton employment stats. Local government does much of its planning and statistical data by Neighbourhood. Wards are anything but homogenious, they range in size of population an extrodinary amount. Data only becomes information in context. Which context will it be used in? The areas defined by the Real Estate Community, the Chamber of commerce, isolated statistical evidence by the Spectator. Yes, you are right I don't understand Open Data without context.
Now, one candidate has stated he will refuse to meet with anyone he considers a Lobbyist. Does that include a lobbyist for fair wages, from a local union, or a planner that wants to discuss compromises? Does that not impede the flow of Data? Let us compare for a moment Ryan. When I was a council member was I in the top or bottom of the people who responded to you and to the wider community? Do you recall any instance where information was not forthcoming. I guess if one does not answer they way Raise the Hammer approves of it is OK to say anything you like. What about the candidates who don't answer at all?

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By marvincaplan (registered) | Posted October 21, 2010 at 22:36:01

I believe the context of wanting to study the issues around open data means that rather than pledging to support something where the parameters were not clear to me I would like to study the issue. And you're right in the middle of a campaign I didn't. If I do win, I would enjoy having you educate me Ryan.

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By PseudonymousCoward (registered) | Posted October 22, 2010 at 08:15:57

are you so anxious to see that I am not re-elected?

Clueless, longwinded...and now paranoid too?

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted October 22, 2010 at 08:27:55

Mr. Caplan, searching "Open Source City" in Google returns 86.7 million pages in 0.17 seconds any of which would provide a decent background on the topic. Are you saying that no one on your team had the time or willingness to do some basic research before answering a question on a public website?

RTH has been more non-partisan than the other major news sources in this city. The only thing that won't get you elected is answering questions without taking the time to understand them. If you had asked for clarification before you submitted I'm sure Ryan would have been accommodating, but it's not his job to tell you that your answer makes no sense after you've submitted it.

Frankly, if you're going to form opinions on subjects without knowing what they are then blame others for calling you on it, I don't want you as my councillor.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 22, 2010 at 08:54:23

A bit more about the potential value of open data:

In my article last year I pointed out an example of the difference between the city's current approach to sharing information and the way an open source data model would work: monthly building activity.

Today, the city publishes this data in monthly reports in a collection of PDF files. If you want numbers, you need to open up each PDF, visually scan through it to find the numbers you're looking for, and then manually copy the numbers over into your own spreadsheet.

It's slow, tedious, hard to navigate, and cumbersome to analyze for trends or patterns.

In researching an article a few years ago, I bit the bullet and manually copied all of the monthly numbers by building type into a spreadsheet.

Some time later, I moved the numbers into a database on the RTH server. Since then, each month when the next monthly report comes in, I manually add those numbers.

As a result, I now have a modestly useful data set that anyone can access programmatically. Because it's structured data and not a bunch of read-only PDF files, I can also easily write a script that renders the data in a pretty, human-readable format like HTML.

It's both more accessible to programmers and more accessible to non-programmers.

Unfortunately, because the city does not publish its data in an accessible format, I had to do a lot of manual work to reconstruct the data from the read-only reports the city does publish. The time I had to spend on just this report can't possibly scale to the vast number of other reports that would benefit from being available in an accessible, structured format.

Worse, city staff themselves have to do extra manual work to transform the data from a format in which they can analyze it (my understanding from talking to staffers is that it's mostly Excel templates) into the summary format in which they publish it.

It's a double inefficiency that wastes citizens' time and ties city staff up in busywork when they could be adding real value through their expertise.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted October 22, 2010 at 09:55:28

@UrbanRenaissance

I would disagree that RTH is non-partisan. While RTH is trucking for candidates for the sake of their issues rather than being tied to them personally, I think it's fair to say that the contributors of this site strongly support McHattie and Eisenberger, and to a lesser extent Matt Jelly.

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted October 22, 2010 at 11:04:40

I think there's a pretty wide range of who people support on here - but that's also because there's dozens and dozens of contributors. Generalizing's pretty tough.

No matter what issues people care about, there will always be candidates who better or worse are representing one's favoured stance on those issues, but that's completely secondary to the issues.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 22, 2010 at 11:07:03

Individual contributors obviously have political opinions and will choose their preferred candidates when they vote. RTH as an organization is strictly non-partisan, does not endorse candidates, and tries hard to be objective and fair in our coverage and analysis.

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted October 22, 2010 at 11:34:15

RTH definitely has apolitical bias. Thats what attracts many of its readers. Your political philosophies align with theirs. I see the same effect here about being fair as I do with most mainstream sites but I also see that editorial content is generally skewed to a particular point of view as it is in all media

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By mrgrande (registered) | Posted October 22, 2010 at 16:44:59

I always assumed that the HSR must have some sort of API to connect with Google Maps, but I can't seem to find anything...

Anyway, as a programmer, I'd love to see more data available to us. Ryan, it's great to see your building data in JSON format.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 22, 2010 at 17:07:13

Ryan, it's great to see your building data in JSON format.

Thanks! Be sure to check out our election data as well.

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By JeffTessier (anonymous) | Posted October 23, 2010 at 00:56:45

When I discovered that on my Android phone I could obtain Google Maps point-to-point, "how to get there" information and that I could specify that I wanted to know "how to get there" using the HSR, my first thought was, "My God, the HSR is really onto something here. How progressive, how useful, how great that is. Thank you, HSR, for doing this." Maybe it isn't them, I see, but the more the city can do with its various forms of data to enable that kind of functionality, the better. Aside from issues of how the city will allocate resources to make this happen, I can't see why there would be any debate over whether the "Open Source City" model is beneficial. What exactly could the downside possibly be?

Maybe Bob Young will kick in some funds to help us make this happen. The open source model has been pretty beneficial for him.

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By Hopeful (registered) | Posted October 23, 2010 at 11:51:44

Ryan, I couldn't agree with you more about the need for having open-platform usable accessible data made available. Some of the systems built elsewhere (especially in the States) when it's there are incredible. However, the excuses I've heard from City reps and and politicians about this when I've raised it in the past generally involve limits that the Province have in place, especially regarding the Municipal Freedom of Information Act and other data protection and retention statutes. Have you heard the same? If so, maybe it's Queens Park that needs to get the message and set the tone. The only thing that would be better than Hamilton getting it's act together, would be for everyone to. Then you could even cross-compare and run truly detailed analyses jurisdiction by jurisdiction. Thanks for raising this issue. If nothing else, it puts on the radar for whoever sits in Council after next week.

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By Hopeful (registered) | Posted October 23, 2010 at 11:58:51

Sidebar Aside: While we're at it, could we find a way to make the Cable 14 Council coverage, debates, etc., accessible to those of us who don't have cable? I'd heard this was supposed to be addressed as part of the City Hall renos but, alas, it seems to have been forgotten.

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