Special Report: Open Public Data

Open Data is Cool

Dowsing and Milton Splash are just small examples of what can be accomplished with open data.

By Nik Garkusha
Published July 26, 2011

The heat has been scorching! Residents across Ontario, Quebec and part of the US are trying to stay cool. Many people seek out public swimming pools and splash-pads, and turn to their municipalities for information. Others, like Joey Coleman of Open Hamilton and yours truly seek out ways to make that information more accessible.

Hamilton's Dowsing and Milton's Splash are two of the most recent examples of what is possible with open data. They represent a real-life case study of how Open Data can help keep us cooler, while also helping cities provide a better service at a lower cost.

Better Service, Lower Cost

Many municipalities, like the Town of Milton, provide great-looking printed community maps with swimming pool / spray pad information and various community services guides [PDf].

The challenge with those are production and printing costs, which pose a barrier to keeping the information current. For instance, the Milton map is missing some of the newer facilities (like the two splash pads in newer areas of Milton).

The solution: post the source data for the map, i.e. a machine-readable list of facilities with geographic coordinates.

No fancy formatting, no map production, or printing, or distribution required - save our taxpayer dollars. Just publish the raw, most up-to-date data online, the data that already exists in town's information systems.

To Milton's credit, town staff produced a Beat the Heat [PDF] poster with an updated list of facilities, which even included an advisory on one of the spray pads closed for repairs.

The obvious challenge: what happens when repairs are completed, but the flyer is still in circulation? Again, open data to the rescue.

One Source

With so many sources of information (maps, guides, flyers, website pages), open data can become one definitive source of data.

Open Hamilton's Dowsing does just that by pulling partial data for water facilities from at least four sources into one dataset. Milton Splash similarly integrates information from three printed publications into a single dataset.

One place as one definitive source of data drives better accuracy and also better government efficiency. Cities with open data catalogues discover that not only citizens, but also city staff use those catalogues as the primary source of data.

When implemented correctly with workflows and processes to keep the data current, cities can realize significant savings by having just one place to update. Many open data catalogues, such as Microsoft's open source OGDI or commercial Socrata, provide open standard Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to the data. This creates a cascading effect, with open data APIs driving many different uses.

Many Uses

Even without "fancy" APIs or "catalogues" any municipality can realize the benefits of open data. All it takes is data, a website and a license. (A license outlines the terms of use for how the data should be used. For more info on the topic of licenses see this recent article on the state of open data licenses in Canada).

Once the data is online in a machine-readable format, it can literally "turn on" any number of web pages, digital maps, visualizations, online reports, web and mobile applications, and even ordinary spreadsheets like Excel, accessible for those without programming skills.

That is Government as a Platform, the vision popularized by Tim O'Reilly.

For water facilities, all the cities need to do is provide the names, coordinates, hours and status (advisories, etc.) as a download.

For Milton I used OGDI, which allowed me to make the data accessible as an HTML table, a file download (CSV), a map or KML download (common mapping format), or as an XML oData feed or JSON API to power any number of third party interactive maps and apps just like Milton Splash.

Dowsing and Milton Splash are just small examples of what can be accomplished with open data. Both are relatively uncomplicated apps, but each can provide a useful service to Hamilton and Milton residents searching for a pool or a spray pad nearby. As the heat wave breaks records, one couldn't ask for a better way to showcase the value of Open Data.

This was first published on OpenHalton.

Nik Garkusha is an open data and open source geek, technology evangelist and consultant. He is the founder of OpenHalton.ca. He is also the Open Source Strategy Lead at Microsoft (Port25.ca).


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