Tag Archives: application

Cooking up Open Data with the Iron Chef – Summer Institute Day 1

Richard Pietro and James Steenberg discuss one group's open data application with them at Geothink's 2016 Summer Institute.

Richard Pietro and James Steenberg discuss one group’s open data application with them at Geothink’s 2016 Summer Institute.

By Drew Bush

The 2016 Geothink Summer Institute kicked off on May 9 with introductions from Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment, and Pamela Robinson, associate professor in Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning. By that afternoon, the 35 students attending had gotten their hands dirty conceptualizing applications for real open data.

Students at this year’s institute learned difficult lessons about applying actual open data to civic problems through group work and interactions with Toronto city officials, local organizations, and Geothink faculty. The last day of the institute culminated in a writing-skill incubator that gave participants the chance to practice communicating even the driest details of work with open data in a manner that grabs the attention of the public.

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.

On day one, students learned about open data during an Open Data Iron Chef event with Toronto-based open data expert, Richard Pietro, who affectionately calls himself an open government and open data fanboy. He’s known for twice riding his motorcycle across Canada to raise awareness of open data, his film Open, and the company he founded OGT Productions. All of this work has led him to a unique view of open data and open government.

“It [open data and open government] allows people to customize their government,” Pietro said between sessions. “It’s as simple as that. And whenever anybody asks what it means: It just allows people to customize their government. Very similarly it does what social media did in 2004 to our relationships with our friends and companies and celebrities. Open data and open government is like social media but ten years ago.”

“It’s very new,” he added. “Some people understand its potential but nobody really understands how much it’s going to change everything about how people interact with their government and how government interacts with people. So it’s going to have incredible transformative powers.”

Watch a clip of Pietro introducing the Open Data Iron Chef event on day one here:

After Pietro’s introduction to open data, James Steenberg, a postdoctoral researcher at Ryerson University with Robinson, walked students through the different file types open data is often released in, what an actual data set might look like, and how to go about working with such data.

“I think it would be more useful if I just went through all the questions I would have if I was literally doing an Iron Chef by myself at home in the kitchen, which I did,” Steenberg told students. “Small apartment, my work desk happened to be pretty much in my kitchen, so I was able to draw some inspiration.”

“And I put together some slides and questions and answers based on just the questions I had starting from scratch,” he continued. “So going to the open data portal, downloading them, opening them up, what kind of file formats are we looking at and so forth. So that’s what I’m going to do today, I’m going to bounce around from a few different files as you saw. But basically I’d like to just develop my own civic app here of what I hope can be a useful function in the city.”

The majority of the day was then given over to students actually finding data they wished to work with (Pietro gave a wide variety of examples during his presentation), a close examination of their chosen datasets, and determining novel uses for which the data could be used to improve city services or better engage citizens. At the end of the day, students presented their proposals that included an analysis of gaps in open data (in availability and quality) and what data was needed to be able to create an open data solution to a chosen real-world problem.

For one student group, this meant taking a closer look at data pertaining to water main breaks within the City of Toronto. In particular, they hoped to determine if any spatial pattern existed with water main breaks in comparison to aspects of the built or natural environments that might influence this phenomenon. The group felt such data could be used to help predict future break sites and facilitate repair before a rupture occurs.

Experiences with this type of work within the group varied widely.

“I don’t have a lot of background in some of this mapping stuff, so I come at it from a very different perspective,” Shelley Cook, from the University of British Columbia, Okanagan, said.

Her group-mate, in contrast, felt quite comfortable with the project the group had chosen.

“So I’ve had a lot of experience doing research on sort of the geographic side of open data, looking at geographic content,” Edgar Baculi, from Ryerson University, added. “I like this activity. This is a great experience. One question that comes to mind right now is why the quality of the data isn’t what I want it to be. In the future, I’d like to see the quality of the data better released, better published from municipal governments to help better answer questions we have as citizens in the decision-making process and in making things better for everyone else.”

Stay tuned for more iTunes podcasts from the Summer Institute here, check back on Geothink for synopses of days two and 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 video, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.

Explorations In Geoweb – The Important Relationship Between Geoweb and Open Data

The Geoweb (related to open data) depends on open data to remain functional and accurate. This relationship functions in reverse as well, in that the support, use, and maintenance of open data can depend on Geoweb applications. One of the factors that influence public support is the perception of use and accessibility of the data. Without public support, open data projects will neither be funded nor maintained. Geoweb applications allow for practical application of open data that have high utility and value for citizens.

The City of Edmonton is a good example of the utilization of an open data portal as well as Geoweb applications on their website. The main page allows for you to browse various data sites and includes direct links to interactive maps and apps that make use of the data. While it is still very limited in terms of GIS capabilities (it just has some querying capability), it is still a step forward from simply viewing and downloading data. The City of Edmonton’s data portal development was commissioned to the open data platform company Socrata (the portal can be found here: https://data.edmonton.ca/).

There is statistical data that emphasizes the importance of the relationship between Geoweb and open data in a survey that was conducted in 2010 by Socrata. This company conducted an online survey of a total of 1000 citizens, a number of developers, and also municipal governments in the United States over a three month period in 2010 (http://www.socrata.com/benchmark-study). The results delivered a picture of the state of open data in the United States along with factors influencing success present and future.

The survey confirms that transparency, accountability and public participation in government are important to citizens, and consequently to governments who value public  opinion. Governments  who recognize that open data can affect the daily lives of citizens, and that this motivated them to initiate an open data project were in the majority of those surveyed (see Socrata Benchmark Study). Also, open data projects encouraged a positive attitude towards politicians and government as 61.0% of citizens surveyed, stated that they are more likely to vote for a politician who supports the development of Open Data and 56.3% stated they would trust their governments more if they made most of their data available online. These two factors alone show that citizens have a progressive mindset with regards to open data and that this is something that citizens want from their government. Government employees who were surveyed showed a much greater support for open data than citizens, 92.6% believed that public data should be made accessible online, 91% believed government data is public taxpayer property and should be made available free to all citizens.
The motivation and the support exist internally and externally, all that is missing is a standardization or organization for governments to allocate more resources to developing these projects.
The largest obstacle, according to the study, was lack of leadership from within the government to launch or to organize themselves for development.  The survey showed that the greatest motivation for open data initiatives at the Federal level was compliance to legislation or executive mandate. Mandates and regulation works for getting the ball rolling, overcoming the obstacle of ground up initiative, and so more of it needs to be seen to get smaller departments and organizations up to speed.  Thus the challenge to governments at all levels is to close the gap between the early and late adopters. One solution may be public awareness. The survey recorded that more than 60% of citizens surveyed did not have awareness of open data initiatives from their governments at all, which means that the majority of people don’t even know that open data is available to them. Getting the open data portals more exposure would lead to greater expectations and pressure from members of the public to increase the capacity, quality and development of open data. Citizens must know that there is a value to this data, and public awareness is a more complicated issue when not every citizen understands the benefits of it.

The success of a data portal then, and the success of its exposure to citizens, depends greatly on the ease of use to citizens, beyond being downloadable and readable. According to the information collected:

With respect to accessing data, citizens, by a 3 to 1 margin, prefer exploring and interacting with data online (63%) to downloading it in a spreadsheet (16%). As a matter of fact, downloading data, which is currently the most prevalent consumption method of government data ranked much lower than browsing pre-made visualizations (37%) or data discovery through social interactions and community feedback (29%). (Socrata Benchmark Study 2010).

Synthesized, organized and utilized information is more attractive to users than raw data alone and therefore has greater value and utility. Development of Geoweb applications need to be encouraged by governments or citizen groups through hackathons or other incentives in order to address the problem of both awareness with respect to the existence of the data portals, its utility to citizens and for governments making the budgets, the dollar-for-dollar value to invest in maintenance of the projects and increase funding and/or support.

Another important  issue and obstacle, is that the data that is available is often not deemed to be sufficient by developers to produce Geoweb applications, and thus data quality needs to be addressed in priority. Without voluntary developers for the Geoweb applications, development of Geoweb becomes expensive to governments and is also less efficient. Greater than 50% of developers surveyed do not believe that the data available is sufficient to develop a wide range of functional apps. More specifically, the needs identified by developers surveyed for efficient use of data were the right data (56.7%), open API (50%) and access to meta data, data quality (46.7%).

The Geoweb and open data have evolved to be dependent on one another for success, and the development of Geoweb applications is a key factor in the success of open data projects for governments. Regulation, public awareness, and data quality are amongst many variables that must be addressed by governments, and functional and valuable Geoweb applications can ease this for them.

To view the Socrata Benchmark Survey results, visit https://benchmarkstudy.socrata.com/. The written report is downloadable upon request at http://www.socrata.com/benchmark-study/