Tag Archives: Toronto

Measuring the Value of Open Government Data – Summer Institute Day 2

 Day two of Geothink's 2016 Summer Institute began with short lectures on specific disciplinary perspectives on open data. Teresa Scassa, Canada Research Chair in Information Law at the University of Ottawa, gave a legal perspective on the value of open data.

Day two of Geothink’s 2016 Summer Institute began with short lectures on specific disciplinary perspectives on open data. Teresa Scassa, Canada Research Chair in Information Law at the University of Ottawa, gave a legal perspective on the value of open data.

By Drew Bush

Day two of the 2016 Summer Institute began with presentations from Geothink’s faculty that aimed to provide different disciplinary approaches to evaluating open data. Armed with this information, students spent the rest of the day working in groups to first create measures to value open data, and, second, role-play how differing sectors might use a specific type of data.

The morning began with 30-minute presentations from members of Geothink’s faculty. Peter Johnson, an assistant professor at Waterloo University’s Department of Geography and Environmental Planning, led off with a presentation on how municipal governments evaluate the success of their open data programs.

“This is the situation that we sort of find ourselves in when it comes to evaluating open data,” Johnson told students. “There’s this sort of world outside of government that’s bent on evaluating open data. And those are people like me, academics, those are non-profits, those are, you know, private sector organizations who are looking at open data and trying to understand how is it being used. So this is kind of, I think, a sign that open data has arrived a little bit. Right? It’s not just this sort of dusty, sort of nerdy cobweb in the corner of the municipal government basement. It’s something that other people are noticing and other people are taking an interest in.”

Johnson was followed by Teresa Scassa, Canada Research Chair in Information Law at the University of Ottawa, with a legal perspective on the value of open data. Pamela Robinson, associate professor in Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, gave a civic-oriented approach to the value of open data, one that was intentionally at odds with the private sector.

“I’ll be really blunt, I’m not that interested in making money from open data,” Robinson told students in regard to the common municipal reason for opening data. “It’s important but it’s not my thing. As an urban planner, my primary preoccupation is about citizen’s relationships with their government. And I’m interested in the proposition that open data as an input into open government can fundamentally shift the relationship between civil society and institutions.”

Finally, Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment, provided a summary of the methods for evaluating open data.

Each of these short lectures were part of a comprehensive look at open data during the three-day institute. Students at this year’s institute learned difficult lessons about applying actual open data to civic problems and on how to evaluate the success of an open data program. In between activities on day two, students also heard from a panel of municipal officials and representatives of Toronto-based organizations working with open data.

Held annually as part of a five-year Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) partnership grant, each year the Summer Institute devotes three days of hands-on learning to topics important to research taking place in the grant. This year, each day of the institute alternated lectures and panel discussions with work sessions where instructors mentored groups one-on-one about the many aspects of open data.

But many students struggled not only with thinking about how to evaluate the open data that they were working with, but also with how to determine the impact of any project that utilizes such an information source.

“I think a big challenge that I personally am facing is this idea of it’s supposed to have real improvement for society, it’s suppose to help society,” Rachel Bloom, from McGill University, said. “But we find that a lot of vulnerable populations actually won’t have access to these applications and the technology. So it’s kind of like trying to reconcile this idea of helping while also being aware that like maybe you are not actually reaching the population you are trying to help. Which is kind of what openness is about—is actually engaging the people personally.”

It is for such reasons that evaluating open data can be quite nuanced—an idea represented in student group presentations on the topic. The presentations varied greatly with some student groups choosing metrics based on the things that a community might value and then establishing an outside monitor to observe datasets and report back to the community. Other students established a workflow to harness citizen input to evaluate open data through instruments such as online surveys.

An afternoon panel comprised of local city officials and representatives from groups concerned with open data discussed the practical side of publishing, using, and evaluating open data as it stands today. The panel included Keith McDonald, former open data lead for City of Toronto; Bryan Smith, co-founder and Chief-Executive-Officer of ThinkData Works; Marcy Burchfield and Vishan Guyadeen, from The Neptis Foundation; And, Dawn Walker and Curtis McCord, Geothink students from University of Toronto who designed the Citizen’s Guide to Open Data.

Two of the primary concerns shared by panelists included the lack of standards for which differing municipalities provide open data, and the gap that exists between how open data is provided and what businesses or citizens require to actually use it. Smith spoke of how early visions of students and application developers using open data to radically transform life in cities have not scaled up to the national level particularly well.

“What we are seeing, which I don’t think anyone predicted, is the large companies—mostly companies that run a bunch of apps that probably everyone here has on their phones—are the ones who are the biggest purveyors of open data,” Smith told students. Issues with the type and quantity of data (as well as differences between how data is provided in different places) have limited other players and even some of these big developers too.

For more on this discussion, check out an excerpt of the panel discussion below. We pick up the discussion as the panelists talk about standards in relation to the Open Government Partnership.

In role-playing activities, students considered the issues raised by the panel as well as the practical problems citizens or other groups might face in finding the open data they require. Concluding presentations included those from students playing the role of real estate developers, non-profits concerned with democracy, and a bicycle food courier service.

Stay tuned for the full audio of each professors’ talk presented as podcasts here. Also check back on Geothink for a synopsis of day three, and, of course, watch more of our video clips (which we’ll be uploading in coming days) here.

If you have thoughts or questions about this article or the videos, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.

Geothoughts 10: Governing Makerspaces in Toronto with Jordan Bowden

A McGill University undergraduate has undertaken unique research on the governance of Toronto’s Makerspaces.

By Drew Bush

We’re very excited to present you with our tenth episode of Geothoughts. You can also subscribe to this Podcast by finding it on iTunes.

In this episode, we examine a project funded by McGill University Arts Undergraduate Research Internship Award (ARIA) and Geothink. In it, one student has found a huge variance between the types of Makerspaces found in Toronto. The city’s groups represent what McGill University Undergraduate Jordan Bowden calls a unique Canadian evolution of the Makerspace concept. He worked with Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment.

A Makerspace is a place where people come together and share commonly owned tools, equipment, or software to learn new skills. They can be for profit, they can be non-profit, they can be run by a group of individuals, or by larger institutions like universities or libraries. First popular in China and other Asian countries, these do-it-yourself (DIY) spaces where people can gather to create, invent, and learn have also spread to the United States and, more recently, Canada. Many of Canada’s Makerspaces face little formal regulation and differ greatly from their formulations than in other countries.

Thanks for tuning in. And we hope you subscribe with us at Geothoughts on iTunes. A transcript of this original audio podcast follows.


Welcome to Geothoughts. I’m Drew Bush.

[Geothink.ca theme music]

“So Makerspaces, there are a lot of different terms that have sort of been in the same sphere as Makerspaces, ranging from Hackerspaces to Hacklabs to Fablabs to even some shared studio spaces which are less formal. All of kind have been put underneath the umbrella term of a Makerspace. And a Makerspace basically is a place where people come together and use commonly owned tools.”

That’s McGill University Undergraduate Jordan Bowden on his unique yearlong honours thesis project investigating how governance works in 10 different Toronto Makerspaces. He’s a long-time participant in the work being done in Makerspaces. He also recently completed his thesis for Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment.

“They can be for profit, they can be non-profit, they can be run by a group of individuals, or by larger institutions like universities or libraries. So in my research, I find that there is a huge variance of the practices between spaces that were using this term. Especially in Toronto which is where my research is focused. There was, there was just a huge variety of Makerspaces. I studied about 10 Makerspaces in my research. And some of them are run just groups of artists who are using commonly owned tools. Others were run by the local library and really focused on sort of entrepreneurship and that sort of thing.”

Still confused about how to define a Makerspace? You might not be alone, as the concept has varied and evolved as it has spread globally.

“So, yeah, I mean the term itself has only really emerged over the past four to five years I’d say. And before then, like Hackerspaces and Hacklabs, have like that term itself has a much longer history stretching all the way back to the 1990s. The main distinction there is that Hacklabs and Hackerspaces are often focused more on computers. Whereas Makerspaces can be focused really on any sort of production be it computers or woodworking or metalworking and that sort of thing.”

Bowden says that the question of how such spaces are governed in Canada is an entirely new one. And he adds that it’s crucial: What Makerspaces can actually do is greatly affected by how they are run.

“Within each Makerspace, some Makerspaces have sort of formal committees wherein makers are actually involved in the running of the space in every aspect. Whereas others are pretty much governed by a handful of people. Be they like a single executive director at a non-profit organization or like multiple actors in a for profit Makerspace. So it’s, yeah, there’s a lot there. My paper covers a lot of different examples of this. Yeah, there’s a lot of different actors involved.”

The project took Bodwen a great deal of time to research, conduct field work for, and then write about in the fall and winter of this academic year.

“I’ve been working on it basically since last summer. I did field research in Toronto over August of last year where I conducted 10 different interviews. I used nine in my research. And I also did observation at different Makerspaces around the city, and went to maker related events and did observation there as well.”

Not every hypothesis that Bowden hoped to explore panned out in the Canadian context of Toronto.

“I though there would be governmental actors involved, but I really found, I kept on trying to snowball and finding more people to interview. But it people kept on saying the same people I had already interviewed. So it was like who else should I interview? And then I would get the same answers from multiple people. So I realized the scene was pretty small. So instead I did more in depth interviews. They were each about 30 minutes to an hour long each.”

This work led Bowden to author a 63-page honours thesis entitled “Governance of Makerspaces in Toronto, Canada.” Find this paper at the McGill University library soon.

[Geothink.ca theme music]

[Voice over: Geothoughts are brought to you by Geothink.ca and generous funding from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.]


If you have thoughts or questions about this podcast, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.

Geothink Research Gives Inside Look at how Toronto’s Makerspaces are Governed

A McGill University undergraduate has undertaken unique research on the governance of Toronto's Makerspaces as his honours thesis project.

A McGill University undergraduate has undertaken unique research on the governance of Toronto’s Makerspaces as his honours thesis project.

By Drew Bush

Google “Makerspaces” and you might not understand the definition you’re reading. First popular in China and other Asian countries, these do-it-yourself (DIY) spaces where people can gather to create, invent, and learn have also spread to the United States and, most recently, Canada.

Many are located at libraries where they include tools such as 3D printers, software, and electronics while others include craft and hardware supplies, online sites, tools, and more. People go to these social spaces to build and invent often with expensive, specialized equipment, while teaching and learning from their peers.

In research funded by a McGill University Arts Undergraduate Research Internship Award (ARIA) and Geothink, one student has found a huge variance between the types of spaces found in Toronto. The city’s groups represent what McGill University Undergraduate Jordan Bowden calls a unique Canadian evolution of the Makerspace concept. Many of Canada’s Makerspaces face little formal regulation and differ greatly from their formulations than in other countries, he added.

“My research tries to make the argument that there are sort of intervening factors between the actual desire to make stuff and start a Makerspace and the actual production of the thing,” he says of research he conducted into how 11 different Toronto Makerspaces are governed in the summer of 2015. His work was undertaken with the supervision of Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment. It will constitute his soon-to-be-submitted undergraduate honours thesis.

“It’s interesting because there are so many actors which have emerged in my research that participate,” he added. “Ranging from the local government, which has been involved only in a limited extent in the way that they fund maker events. Like there’s a big festival called the maker festival. And there’s also more formal like funding agencies. But it’s interesting they only fund very particular aspects of Makerspaces. So they’re only interested in more entrepreneurship focused endeavours versus artists.”

One of the main differences in the Toronto Makerspaces where Bowden conducted his interviews was the manner in which they were governed. At first, he focused his research on looking at the way formal provincial or federal agencies regulate what Makerspaces can build or how much noise they might make. But he didn’t find any evidence of the province or federal government regulating these spaces.

Bowden also believed he’d be able to interview a wide number of people and groups. But that didn’t pan out during the summer he spent observing different Makerspaces around the city and going to maker related events. What he found instead was a need for longer more in-depth interviews with fewer groups that possessed a wide variety of organizational structures. These interviews make up the core of his thesis research and include non-profit boards, for profit companies, groups of artists, local library groups, and spaces run by the government.

“Governance matters, [and] a wide variety of actors, including nonhuman, play a role in the governance system,” Bowden said of the Makerspaces he examined. Interestingly, the idea of governance within these spaces also varies greatly, he added.

“I use the term a lot in the paper, urban governance systems,” Bowden said. Such governance systems can shape a Makerspace’s existance and what people actually make, he added. There are a multitude of factors which restrict or enable what makers create in the space, like noise, tools, or the organizational factors.

Bowden has personal experience with such intervening factors. He’s been involved in the Makerspace community for quite some time, originally out of interest in a corporate project using a 3D printer. It’s led him to believe that there’s not much research right now on the different Makerspaces emerging in the Canadian context. In particular, he says, not much has been written on the differing contexts and mechanisms by which they’re governed.

“It’s been a year long project, which is actually a bit more extensive than the usual honours theses are,” he said. “It’s been great because I’ve been able to do field research which a lot of people wouldn’t do for undergrad thesis. Including interviews. So it’s really been a really great experience for me in terms of getting a good feel for research and doing field research as well.”

Find out more about Makerspaces and how Bowden conducted his research in Geothoughts Podcast 10: Governing Makerspaces in Toronto with Jordan Bowden.

If you have thoughts or questions about the article, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.

Inside Geothink’s Open Data Standards Project: Standards For Improving City Governance

By Rachel Bloom

Rachel Bloom is a McGill University undergraduate student and project lead for Geothink’s Open Data Standards Project.

In February, I led a Geothink seminar with city officials to introduce the results of our open data standards project we began approximately one year earlier. The project was started with the objective of assisting municipal publishers of open data in standardizing their datasets. We presented two spreadsheets: the first was dedicated to evaluating ‘high-value’ open datasets published by Canadian municipalities and the second consisted of an inventory of open data standards applicable to these types of datasets.

Both spreadsheets enable our partners who publish open data to know what standards exist and who uses them for which datasets. The project I lead is motivated by the idea that well-developed data standards for city governance can grant us the luxury of not having to think about the compatibility of technological components. When we screw in a new light bulb or open a web document we assume that it will work with the components we have (Guidoin and McKinney 2012). Technology, whether it refers to information systems or manufactured goods, relies on standards to ensure its usability and dissemination.

Municipal governments that publish open data look to the importance of standards for improving the usability of their data. Unfortunately, even though ‘high-value’ datasets have increasingly become available to the public, these datasets currently lack a consensus about how they should be structured and specified. Such datasets include crime statistics and annual budget data that can provide new services to citizens when municipalities open such datasets by publishing them to their open data catalogues online. Anyone can access such datasets and use the data however they wish without restriction.

Civic data standards provide agreements about semantic and schematic guidelines for structuring and encoding the data. Data standards specify technical data elements such as file formats, data schemas, and unique identifiers to make civic data interoperable. For example, most datasets are published in CSV or XML formats. CSV structures the data in columns and rows, while XML encapsulates the data in a hierarchical tree of <tags>.

They also specify common vocabularies in order to clarify interpretation of the data’s meanings. Such vocabularies could include, for example, definitions for categories of expenditure in annual budget data. Geothink’s Open Data Standards Project offers publishers of open data an opportunity to improve the usability and efficiency of their data for consumers. This makes it easier to share data across municipalities because the technological components and their meanings within systems will be compatible.

Introducing Geothink’s Open Data Standards Project
No single, clear definition of an open data standard exists. In fact, most definitions of an ‘open data standard’ follow two prevailing ideas: 1) Standards for open data; 2) And, open standards for data. Geothink’s project examines and relates together both of these prevailing ideas (Table 1). The first spreadsheet, the ‘Adoption of Open Data Standards By Cities’, considers open data and its associated data standards. The second spreadsheet, the ‘Inventory of Open Data Standards,’ considers the process of open standardization. In other words, we were curious about what standards are currently being applied to open municipal data, and how to break down and document open standards for data in a way that is useful to municipalities looking to standardize their open data.

Table 1: Differences between ‘open data’ standards and open ‘data standards’

Requires open data Requires open standard process
Evaluation of ‘High-Value’ Datasets Yes No
Inventory of Open Data Standards No Yes

The project’s evaluation of datasets relates to standards for open data. Standards for open data refer to standards that, regardless of how they are developed and maintained, can be applied to open data. Open data, according to the Open Knowledge Foundation (2014), consists of raw digital data that should be freely available to anyone to use, repurposable and re-publishable as users wish, and absent mechanisms of control like restrictive licenses. However, the process of developing and maintaining standards for open data may not require transparency nor include public appeals for its development.

To discover what civic data standards are currently being used, the first spreadsheet, Adoption of Open Data Standards By Cities, evaluates ‘high value’ datasets specific to 10 domains (categories of datasets such as crime, transportation or or service requests) in the open data catalogues for the cities of Vancouver, Toronto, Surrey, Edmonton and Ottawa. The types of data were chosen based on the Open Knowledge Foundation’s choice of datasets considered to provide greatest utility for the public. The project’s spreadsheet notes salient structuring and vocabulary of each dataset; such as the name, file format, schema, and available metadata. It especially notes which data standards these five municipalities are using for their open data (if any at all).

With consultation from municipal bodies and organizations dedicated to publishing open data, we developed a second spreadsheet, Inventory and Evaluation of Open Data Standards,  that catalogues and evaluates 22 open data standards that are available for domain-specific data. The rows of this spreadsheet indicate individual data standards. The columns of this spreadsheet evaluate background information and quality for achieving optimal interoperability for each of the listed standards. Evaluating the quality of the standard’s performance, such as whether the standard is transferable to multiple jurisdictions, is an important consideration for municipalities looking to optimally standardize their data. Examples of open data standards in this inventory are BLDS for building permit data and the Budget Data Package for annual budget data.

The project’s second spreadsheet is concerned with open standards for data. Open standards, as opposed to closed standards, requires a collaborative, transparent, and consensus-driven process to maintain its development (Palfrey and Gasser, 2012). Therefore, open standards honor a commitment to processes of transparency, due process, and rights of appeal. Similarly to open data, open standards resist processes of unchecked, centralized control (Russell, 2014) . Open data standards make sure that end users do not get locked into a specific technology. In addition, because open standards are driven by consensus, they are developed according to the needs and interests of participatory stakeholders. While we provide spreadsheets on both, our project advocates implementing open standards for open data.

In light of the benefits of open standardization, the metrics of the second spreadsheet note the degree of openness for each standard. Such indicators of openness include multi-stakeholder participation and a consensus-driven process. Openness may be observed through the presence of online forums to discuss suggestions or concerns regarding the standard’s development and background information about each standard’s publishers. In addition, open standards use open licenses that dictate the standards may be used without restriction and repurposable for any use. Providing this information not only allows potential implementers to be aware of what domain-specific standards exist, but also allows them to gauge how well the standard performs in terms of optimal interoperability and openness.

Finally, an accompanying white paper explains the two spreadsheets and the primary objective of my project for both publishers and consumers of open data. In particular, it explains the methodology, justifies chosen evaluations, and notes the project’s results.  In addition, this paper will aid in navigating and understanding both of the project’s spreadsheets.

Findings from this Project
My work on this project has led me to conclude that the majority of municipally published open datasets surveyed do not use civic data standards. The most common standard used by municipalities in our survey was the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) for transit data and the Open311 API for service request data. Because datasets across cities and sectors vary formats and structure, differences in them coupled with a lack of cohesive definitions for labeling indicate standardization across cities will be a challenging undertaking. Publishers aiming to extend data shared among municipalities would benefit from collaborating and agreeing on standards for domain-specific data (as is the case with GTFS).

Our evaluation of 22 domain-specific data standards also shows standards do exist across a variety of domains. However, some domains, such as budget data, contain more open data standards than others. Therefore, potential implementers of standards must reconcile which domain-specific standard best fits their objectives in publishing the data and providing the most benefits for public good.

Many of standards also contain information for contacting the standard’s publishers along with online forums for concerns or suggestions. However, many still full information regarding their documentation or are simply in early draft stages. This means that although standards exist, some of these standards are in their early stages and may not be ready for implementation.

Future Research Pathways
This project has room for growth so that we can better our partners who publish and use open data decide how to go about adopting standards. To accomplish this goal, we could add more cities, domains, and open standards to the spreadsheets. In addition, any changes made to standards or datasets in the future must be updated.

In terms of the inventory of open data standards, it might be beneficial to separate metrics that evaluate openness of a standard from metrics that evaluate interoperability of a standard. Although we have emphasized the benefits of open standardization in this project, it is evident that some publishers of data do not perceive openness as crucial for the successfulness of a data standard in achieving optimal interoperability.

As a result, my project does not aim to dictate how governments implement data standards. Instead, we would like to work with municipalities to understand what is valued within the decision-making process to encourage adoption of specific standards. We hope this will allow us to provide guidance on such policy decisions. Most importantly, to complete such work, we ask Geothink’s municipal partners for input on factors that influence the adoption of a data standard in their own catalogues.

Contact Rachel Bloom at rachel.bloom@mail.mcgill.ca with comments on this article or to provide input on Geothink’s Open Data Standards Project.

Guidoin, Stéphane and James McKinney. 2012. Open Data, Standards and Socrata. Available at http://www.opennorth.ca/2012/11/22/open-data-standards.html. November 22, 2012.
Open Knowledge. Open Definition 2.0. Opendefinition.org. Retrieved 23 October 2015, from http://opendefinition.org/od/2.0/en/
Palfrey, John Gorham, and Urs Gasser. Interop: The promise and perils of highly interconnected systems. Basic Books, 2012.
Russell, Andrew L. Open Standards and the Digital Age. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Envisioning An Environmentally Sustainable Urban Future Using Clean Digital Technologies


By Drew Bush

Imagine a world where electric taxis crowd Montreal’s downtown streets, green buildings efficiently manage energy consumption for Vancouverites, and Toronto’s city leaders monitor differences in neighbourhood surface heat emissions to best position green roofs. Now imagine the environmental and social impacts of such shifts when scaled-up for all of Canada’s cities.

That future—one that makes use of digital technology, citizen-sensors, and open data to manage urban areas more sustainable—may already be here according to some experts. In coming years, the company Téo taxi will bring the first fleet of electric taxis to Montreal’s streets while Hydro Quebec has also begun work to bring thousands of electric charging stations to the province of Quebec.

Globally, changes triggered by digital technologies and open data have already begun to impact how city leaders make decisions and engage with communities on environmental issues. One outcome of these new mediums for exchanging information has been enhanced capacity of cities to use citizens and resources to strategically tackle issues such as climate change.

I think it will be a noticeable difference on the streets of Montreal when you walk out and you see the white and green Téo taxis you know all through the downtown core,” said Geothink researcher Alexander Aylett, a professor and researcher at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique.You know we’re talking about a really large pool of electric vehicles. And the shift is an environmental one, but it’s also a social and a cultural one where people start to have direct experience with electric mobility. It will be really profound.”

Aylett noted that 40 percent of Montreal’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions derive from moving people and things around the city. Efforts to scale-up the ability of cities across Canada to manage and change truck, car, and train traffic is one of several goals city leaders across North America are pursuing, he added in a recent interview with Geothink.ca.

“So instead of just having one city that’s really strong in transit and another city that’s really strong in green buildings, we are seeing a shift—I think it’s a slow shift but I think we’re headed in that direction—where cities are approaching sustainability and trying be leaders in multiple sectors,” Aylett said. “So buildings, transit, energy—all of it.”

The City of the Future

City leaders around the world are aware that municipalities themselves only control a very small percent of the urban infrastructure that directly and indirectly can lead to environmental damage. Cities also cause environmental damages well beyond their geographic scope making it more difficult for them to reduce impacts. Consequently, solutions that rely on taxation or legislation may have limited ability to dramatically shift the myriad social behaviors tied to environmental issues like climate change.

Technology makes possible not only harnessing the individual abilities of citizens—think transit engineers, architects, and software developers—in networked communities but also new understandings of how urban systems impact local and international environmental problems.

Take, for example, the urban heat island effect. Described by scientists, it concerns the process by which urban surfaces absorb more solar energy and re-admit it as thermal energy (primarily at night) than do surrounding non-paved areas. Better modelling of local and regional climatological processes using citizen sensors can allow cities to pin-point which neighbourhoods are most susceptible to this problem and plan strategically.

Technology may also one day revolutionize how environmental issues are managed locally. The release of open data on neighbourhood energy consumption, water use, and waste disposal make it possible for cities to work with the private sector, non-profits, and academics to better manage flows of materials, goods, and energy in urban areas. Researchers sometimes call such measurement work “urban metabolism.”

“All of those things are being enabled in a way that we’ve never seen before by new technology,” Aylett said. “So the output is becoming a much deeper understanding of how our cities function and the impacts that they have. And where, if you want to think about it like acupuncture, where you can take strategic action in one space that will cause sort of systemic shifts in those impacts.”

He added that visualization and cartographic technologies now make it possible to take information that’s quite complex and make it understandable even for non-experts. What’s more difficult to assess is how such technological tools make possible collaborative action that builds around specific issues as they spread through a community.

Cities in International Climate Politics

Individual cities around the world have shown international and national climate change negotiators what’s possible in tackling climate change mitigation and adaptation, according to Aylett. This despite the inability of some provincial/state and federal governments to incorporate and engage with such local solutions, he added.

Yet much work remains. In an inventory of the open data portals of 20 of the largest Canadian cities Aylett completed last summer, he determined that things like parks and green spaces are well represented while others such as energy consumption or air quality are entirely absent. Aylett hopes the addition of such data will increasingly play an important role in urban environmental management. But it’s still “early days” for this type of open data, he repeated often during the interview, noting that researchers in public health could make a similar complaint.

“So far cities in Canada are not providing on their open data web sites the basic ingredients for innovation around urban sustainability or for you know effective action within the municipality,” he cautioned. “There is a lot of good data that cities have that so far hasn’t been made available. And what that means—it’s a negative and it’s a positive. It means that there is huge potential for the cities that decide to be strategic about it to lay the groundwork for a really interesting period in municipal policy making, and innovation, and experimentation here in Canada.”

Stay tuned for our audio podcast with Alex Aylett to hear him talk about cities and international solutions to climate change as well as how new technologies shape interactions in neighbourhoods and between neighbours on environmental issues.

Also tweet him at @openalex_ and check him out at Open Alex.

Photo Credits:
Slide 1 – Roulez Électrique
Slide 2 – Gladki Planning Associates
Slide 3 – VanCity Buzz

If you have thoughts or questions about this article, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.

Four Geothink Partner Cities Named to Top 10 on First Ever Canada Open Cities Index

Rankings of Canada's Top 10 cities out of possible max scores of 193 (Image courtesy of Public Sector Digest).

Rankings of Canada’s Top 10 cities out of possible max scores of 193 in Public Sector Digest’s 2015 Open Cities Index (Image courtesy of Public Sector Digest).

By Drew Bush

Numerous city, state, and provincial governments across North America are finding new ways to share government data online. With more than 60 nations now part of the Open Government Partnership, it’s often difficult to determine which initiatives are simply part of a growing fad instead of being true attempts at more responsive and accountable government.

In the United States, President Barak Obama announced plans in 2009 to make many federal agencies open by default with government information, yet just last month the office charged with carrying out this directive failed to openly publish a schedule for its guidelines on this work. In Canada, a variety of city initiatives aim to allow citizens to more easily view crime statistics, find out information about neighborhood quality of life, or time the arrival of the next bus. With so many initiatives, it can be difficult to determine which best improves municipal responsiveness or offers new services to citizens particularly amidst promises by the newly elected Liberal government on open data (see Tweet below).

The authors of Public Sector Digest’s first ever 2015 Open Cities Index aim to solve this problem by providing “a reference point for the performance” of open data programs in 34 Canadian cities. The authors of the index undertook a survey to measure 107 variables related to open data programs. In particular, the index measures three types of data sets cities may have made available: those related to accountability (e.g. elections or budget data), innovation (e.g. traffic volume or service requests), and social policy (e.g. crime rates or health performance).

Across each data set in these three categories, municipalities were scored on five variables according to questions such as whether their data sets are available online, machine readable, free, and up-to-date. The aim was to help these municipalities, which often have limited resources to spend on open data programs, to assess their strengths and weaknesses and improve open data programs.

Four Geothink partner cities made the top 10 of the index, with Edmonton in first place, Toronto second, Ottawa fourth, and Vancouver sixth. At last year’s Canadian Open Data Summit, Edmonton also won the Canadian Open Data Award. You can find the full list of city rankings on the report’s home page. Yet the value of these types of ratings and awards will only be shown over time, according to many practitioners in the field.

“It’s hard to tell what it means to be ranked fourth because it’s a brand new thing,” said Robert Giggey, the coordinator and lead for the City of Ottawa’s Open Data program. “It’s not something that’s done every year, every month, that everybody knows about and is waiting for. So it’s kind of yet to be determined.”

The Value of the Index

Other indexes have measured open data at the national level, such as the Open Data Barometer. And measurements of municipal open data undertaken by two university students focused only on what types of data sets were available. The Open Cities Index works to take this a step further by engaging with key areas of interest. In particular, the index aims to standardize measurements around three themes:

1. Readiness—To what extent is the municipality ready/capable of fostering positive outcomes through its open data initiative?
2. Implementation—To what extent has the city fulfilled its open data goals and ultimately, what data has it posted online?
3. Impact—To what extent has the posted information been used, what benefits has the city accrued as a result of its open data program, and to what extent is the city capable of measuring the impact?

One Geothink researcher cautions, however, that it’s difficult to ascertain the worth of the index until its authors make the full report available along with more information on the 107 variables surveyed. In particular, he said, implementation can be a difficult metric to measure because different cities have different data collection responsibilities and different goals.

“I’m working on some research right now that shows that governments don’t actually have very good tracking metrics for use,” Peter Johnson, assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Management at the University of Waterloo, wrote in an e-mail to Geothink.ca. “Much of their sense of who uses open data and what it is used for is anecdotal and certainly incomplete. Since open data is provided with few restrictions, it is difficult to track who is using it and what it is being used for in any comprehensive way.”

Beyond the data online now, cities interested in being included in future years of the index and accessing a detailed analysis of municipal open data programs across Canada must contact Public Sector Digest. Some municipalities, like Ottawa, may wait and see how it goes in those places that have already paid for the service, according to Giggey.

“I want to see what the reaction is from the open data community, from other jurisdictions, from other areas—Geothink—about what they think of the index,” he said. “Is this any good? Is it worth anything? Then we’ll look to see if it’s something we want to invest in.”

A screen shot of Toronto's Open Data portal for city hall.

A screen shot of Toronto’s Open Data portal for city hall.

The Reaction Among Geothink Partner Cities

The value of the index will be determined as more details on its methodology and conclusions are released, and, perhaps, it becomes a regular measure of open data work in Canada’s municipalities. For now city staff in charge of open data work in the cities interviewed by Geothink.ca agree that the index does achieve the goal of bringing recognition to the work they are doing. In Ottawa, this has included work to make the city accountable by providing datasets on elected officials, budget data, lobbyist and employee information, and 311 calls. Toronto got a relatively early start with city budgets in 2009 and now also has a portal with social data on neighborhoods (including datasets like demographics, public health, and crime rates).

“I am glad the index recognizes the time and effort each city puts in to make its data open and accessible for reuse and repurpose,” Linda Low, open data coordinator for the City of Vancouver, wrote in an e-mail. Datasets in her city include information on crime, business licenses, property tax, Orthophoto imagery, and census local areal profiles. “This doesn’t happen overnight and it certainly is a team effort to get to where we are today.”

Edmonton’s recognition for its work derives from a 2010 decision by city leaders to launch an open data catalogue and the 2011 awarding of a $400,000 IBM Smart Cities Challenge award grant. Work in the city has included using advanced analysis of open data streams to enhance crime enforcement and prevention, an “open lab” to provide new products that improve citizen interactions with government, and interactive neighbourhood maps that will help Edmontonians locate and examine waste disposal services, recreational centres, transit information, and capital projects. More can be found on Edmonton’s work in a previous Geothink article.

“We are thrilled and honoured that our innovation and hard work have been recognized,” Yvonne Chen, a strategic planner for the City of Edmonton, wrote in an e-mail. She noted that Edmonton’s success, which results directly from a city council policy on open data, includes having an online budget tool that increases transparency about the allocation of public funds. “Our goal has always been to be a leader in the Canadian open government movement.”

While the recognition helps bring attention to the work being done by cities, much remains to be seen about how well the index actually compares cities against each other when objectives and the types of data recorded can vary greatly.

“It’s great to be in the top 10 any time, but we know from when we got the survey sent to us, we weren’t sure of all their measures that they were taking,” Keith McDonald, open data lead for the City of Toronto, said.

“We’d like to see other studies and maybe a little more apples to apples comparison for sure,” he added. “I think actually that was the intent—I can’t speak for the Public Sector Digest—but I think that was the intent of having an ongoing group that would buy into their measuring, so that people could continue to tweak and make it a stronger real apples to apples comparison. And we would support that.”

In fact, the value of an index like this one may lie in allowing cities to track their own progress over time.

“For all those cities included (and even those that aren’t) it can help to narrow the field as to where effort may be best placed to improve open data provision,” Johnson wrote of what he called a “high-profile external evaluation” of each city’s work.

If you have thoughts or questions about this article, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.