Open City

City Manager Issues Open Data Update to Council

By Ryan McGreal
Published January 24, 2011

After being interviewed by the Hamilton Spectator for an upcoming article (I was interviewed recently as well), City Manager Chris Murray has issued an Information Update to Mayor Bob Bratina and City Council to explain the concept of Open Data and how it would apply to City activities. RTH has obtained a copy of the update.

Describing open data as "structured, machine readable, public data ... that is accessible, reliable and openly shared", Murray calls it "part of a transformation agenda" that will impact how the City makes decisions, manages information, deploys resources and sets organizational priorities.

Noting the traditional relationship between information and power, Murray argues that an open data policy "means sending a message within the City administration that this is the public's information and not ours to control." He adds that an effective commitment to open data "requires strong leadership and a culture change" in the City. He adds that much of this information is already available, but not in an accessible or usable format.

Murray concluded that City staff are still "working to understand the implications and our organizational state of readiness" and seek direction from Council on an open data plan.

Here is the text of the Information Update:

I was interviewed today by the Hamilton Spectator for an article that will appear in tomorrow's paper on open data in public sector organizations.

I wanted to provide you with a brief overview in advance of the article and note that there is a movement by the citizens of Hamilton who will be putting forward a motion asking for the City's data sets to be open and accessible to the public (http://openhamilton.ca/).

What is "Open Data"?

Open data is defined as structured, machine readable, public data (e.g. transit and recreation class schedules, food inspection records, budget documents, garbage schedule, rezoning and development permissions, parking locations and meters, etc.) that is accessible, reliable and openly shared. In most cases, the data is already available to the public, just in a format that is inaccessible and therefore unusable to the community that wants to use the data for its purposes.

Why are governments opening their data?

Open data is part of a transformation agenda. Our learnings from other communities is that this process requires strong leadership and a culture change in how we currently share information, manage data, deploy the appropriate skills and resources required and make decisions and prioritize in the organization. Information is traditionally seen as power, and opening it up means sending a message within the City administration that this is the public's information and not ours to control. Opening data is just one means to demonstrate and strengthen value for the citizens' tax dollars.

Open Data is not just about transparency - it's also about improving service delivery

Open data is more than about enhancing government transparency - it's also about stimulating community innovations in service delivery. Just like the roads, neighbourhoods and code of laws create a platform for businesses and communities to innovate and thrive, information is an asset and a platform upon which innovation and development can occur.

Cities across North America have seen entrepreneurs, community developers and even students create mobile and web-based applications using open public data to plan inter-city travel via public transit on a smart phone, create mobile text reminder notices for garbage/leaf/yard waste schedules and report through online applications to fix streets, report potholes and other road problems to their city government. This is just scratching the surface of what could be possible when governments open their public information.

Next Steps at the City

I mentioned to the Spectator that we are currently working to understand the implications and our organizational state of readiness and will look to Council for direction before we implement a plan for open data. 

As part of our learning process, we recently opened our transit schedule data. This is data that we had already released to Google Transit, which means our internal processes to provide the proper format for Google's use already existed. Last summer, the City was approached by staff and students at Mohawk College to open this data to allow its students to develop student focused mobile applications to access public transit among other data. This was done by creating a location on the City's website for data that would be publicly accessible, www.hamilton.ca/Open. We are similarly investigating how to open up garbage collection schedule data.

These learnings will be brought to Council as part of an overall organizational assessment. We are doing similar work and responding to similar issues related to the City's website, call handling management and a service delivery review process that will requires us to improve our organizational readiness for those impending changes as well.

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 mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted January 24, 2011 at 22:06:02

Great stuff.

Having spent some time in correspondence with the Hamilton Civic League over the past week, I can see how this feeds into a sea change regarding local governance, dovetailing with an increase in the relationship of engagement between residents and their Councillors, how they see themselves in the overall scheme of things.

Naturally, this shift in access to information empowers citizens, and this will be great to witness, but for me, it'll be all the more interesting to see how our elected officials and City Hall staff adapt to their changing roles in the new paradigm.

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted January 25, 2011 at 00:18:54

Great to have some good news today! Hopefully this moves from a recommendation to a default implemented in wider and wider circles within the city. Slowly, maybe, but surely.

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By Wentworthst (anonymous) | Posted January 25, 2011 at 00:20:22

That is a fantastic sense of direction from Chris Murray's office.

I hope council can see how important this is to the developing tech community. The students and developers that will work on the interfacing will be building real resumes doing work that will cost us nothing and yet benefit us all.

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By jasonaallen (registered) - website | Posted January 25, 2011 at 10:37:51

Coming from the Transit sphere, I see the work groups like BART (In San Francisco) and even the TTC are doing with open data, and it can be nothing short of transformational. Very exciting!

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By BillDunphy (registered) - website | Posted January 25, 2011 at 12:21:36

Ha! Returning to the newsroom after an absence of 3 and 1/2 years, I guess somehow I'd forgotten that you can be 'scooped' by the people you interview! And now it's happened to me twice on the same story! If I can wipe this egg of my face, I'll get back to writing my story... Seriously though, with what's coming up I think this is going to be a very interesting year for open data folks here in Hamilton. Look forward to the conversations - and the results. (And thanks for publishing the entirety of Chris's report, Ryan).

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