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Rural open data: more than just a technical issue

By Suthee Sangiambut

The conversation around open data is most commonly found at the city level. Ian Parfitt, GIS instructor and Coordinator of Selkirk College’s Selkirk Geospatial Research Centre, has a project looking at open data for rural communities. Parfitt’s past challenges in gaining access to data led to his project, which is helping to develop open data for planning in rural British Columbia. In an interview, Parfitt talked about issues of scale at both demand and supply sides for open data in the region stating that, “in the smaller communities, even digitisation is an issue. Some small communities still use paper maps.” Regarding the digital divide, internet connectivity in rural Canada lags behind larger urban centres, but it is unclear whether the pool of skills to draw upon is smaller than in cities says Parfitt. However, he noted that “if there is a divide in skills amongst users, that is likely to change.” The province of British Columbia is in the process of making programming an integral part of the school curriculum while initiatives such as CODE BC, supported by the provincial government, connect teachers with teaching material. Parfitt also notes that rural tech communities, such as in Nelson, BC are continuing to grow.

Some of the disparities between urban and rural data collection are due to population – larger population centres with more institutions and infrastructure simply produce more data. With economies of scale and an economic stimulus, it makes sense to have real-time data collection and analysis. Cities are also host to more consumers of data of all kinds. Parfitt says that it is “all about scale. Since federal institutions are interested in data they can roll out nationwide, and local governments focus on their own scales, rural areas tend to get left behind. At the same time, national and sub-national decision makers tend to be quite far away.”

Without the resources of federal government or a large municipality, rural areas face relatively high, and potentially unjustifiable costs when it comes to geospatial data collection and analysis. However, for Parfitt, rural data collection is more than just a cost issue. While he agreed that “centralization would help in certain cases”, particularly when it comes to the work on data standards of his own research group, Parfitt also emphasised that empowerment and autonomy are important to keep decision-making local. This ensures that “data serves some purpose and that those purposes are determined locally.” This, he admits, can be difficult when rural governments produce data in collaboration with other levels of government. The needs of rural communities can also be very different from urban communities such as risks of natural hazards, “we live in a mountainous area with big lakes. The transportation system is fragile. When only one road goes along the lake, a single fire or landslide could isolate the community.” For this reason, Parfitt’s research group is focusing on open data for planning around natural hazards.

Putting open data into the regional context, Dr. Jon Corbett (Geothink co-applicant, University of British Columbia Okanagan) says it is “completely different usership. Often, data has not been collected and archived because the needs for up-to-date information are not the same as in cities.” Therefore, rural data tends to be more static. However, Corbett continued, “this does not mean that legislators aren’t still subject to the same demands and requirements for participation, engagement, and informed decision-making.”

The effects of data release may also be different in rural areas says Corbett, “industry around land, such as resource extraction, use data often created and curated by government. If that data is made available, it would be good. On the other hand, look at issues around pipelines and dams. If we made that data available, it could even have adverse effects. Data for countermapping is a good idea, but sometimes that process can be appropriated by all kinds of groups, particularly those already in power.” Corbett highlighted that rural open data brings up even more issues of contention when put in context with First Nations, who need access to data to support land claims and review resource extraction proposals.

To address the above issues, Parfitt’s project is looking to collaborate with regional districts to make data available across communities. Key questions being asked are, “who is producing data, why, and how?” For more information on Ian Parfitt’s research group, visit the Selkirk Geospatial Research Centre website.

Dr. Corbett offered up some food for thought, “in the spirit of sharing government data, why don’t we expand our data repositories and include those outside government?”

Geothink Researcher Peter Johnson Honored with Early Researcher Award from the Government of Ontario

Peter Johnson undertakes the Public Lab of Open Technology and Science (PLOTS, or simply ‘Public Lab’) balloon mapping technique to test it for future use in a class.

Peter Johnson undertakes the Public Lab of Open Technology and Science (PLOTS, or simply ‘Public Lab’) balloon mapping technique to test it for future use in a class.

By Drew Bush

Peter Johnson, assistant professor of Geography and Environmental Management at the University of Waterloo, was honoured with the Ontario Government’s Early Researcher Award for his project, Measuring the Value and Impact of Open Data. Johnson was one of two professors in his department that were funded.

Peter Johnson, assistant professor in the University of Waterloo Department of Geography and Environmental Management, was recently awared Ontario's Young Researcher Award.

Peter Johnson, assistant professor in the University of Waterloo Department of Geography and Environmental Management, was recently awarded Ontario’s Early Researcher Award.

In the project, Johnson will build partnerships with stakeholders, develop case studies to measure the impact of open data initiatives, and assess how open data generates economic and social benefits. Ontario’s provincial and municipal governments now prioritize the sharing of open government data, like many North American communities.

And right now is a key time for evaluating the impacts of such data, Johnson told Geothink this past June at the University of Waterloo.

“I think we’ve reached a spot in open data provision where we understand the technical challenges to providing open data and some of the organizational challenges as well,” he said of his and his students’ work. “But it’s trying to understand what is the impact that open data provision is having. So trying to follow data from just being provided on a web site and a download portal to understanding are community groups using it, is the private sector using it, are other governments using it, or even is it being used internal to the government that’s providing it?”

Johnson’s research may impact how Ontario and other governments one day share open data and the way private developers, nonprofits, and citizens build applications and businesses using such data.

Other areas of research for Johnson and his students include looking at the use of government 311 applications that help citizens report overflowing garbage cans in a local park or if a particular sidewalk might need to be shoveled. Their research questions why governments are developing these applications and using them, the type of data such applications gather, and how this data can be used to improve government processes.

“Is this an opportunity for citizens to express their opinions on different potential developments or to connect with their elected officials?” he asked. “And how does this official channel compare to something that’s unofficial like Twitter?”

“What I’m really interested in is looking at is balancing citizen input that is delivered in these different ways,” he added. “So which one gets the results? Tweeting at your counselor or using the official government branded app to report your pothole at the end of your street?”

In addition to this research, Johnson published a paper with Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill’s Deptartment of Geography and School of Environment,  this past July in Government Information Quarterly entitled “Civic open data at a crossroads: Dominant models and current challenges.

On his personal Web site, he writes that in this piece, “We take a look at the dominant models of open data provision by government and start to lay out what the challenges are for delivering open data. We tried to make this both a reflective look at where open data is, and also to push civic open data forward, examining how open data works as part of open government strategies.” Find a pre-print copy available here and also find the abstract below.

The award, given to 822 early career researchers since 2005, was given by the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation and The Ontario Research Fund – Small Infrastructure programs. The province will spend $209 million this year to support research projects and talent at research institutions across the province. This year’s successful 280 successful projects were chosen based on their research excellence and their economic and societal benefits for Ontario.

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.

Civic open data at a crossroads: Dominant models and current challenges.
As open data becomes more widely provided by government, it is important to ask questions about the future possibilities and forms that government open data may take. We present four models of open data as they relate to changing relations between citizens and government. These models include; a status quo ‘data over the wall’ form of government data publishing, a form of ‘code exchange’, with government acting as an open data activist, open data as a civic issue tracker, and participatory open data. These models represent multiple end points that can be currently viewed from the unfolding landscape of government open data. We position open data at a crossroads, with significant concerns of the conflicting motivations driving open data, the shifting role of government as a service provider, and the fragile nature of open data within the government space. We emphasize that the future of open data will be driven by the negotiation of the ethical-economic tension that exists between provisioning governments, citizens, and private sector data users.

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/

Explorations in Geoweb – Why Social Media is a Good Resource for Municipal Governments

Social media is beginning to be an important tool for governments in interacting with citizens. Social media platforms, whether they be Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn have closed the gap between people, allowing for more efficient spread of information and a sort of intensive networking never possible before. It is clear that instantaneous and interactive access to hundreds, thousands, and millions of people has beat out traditional communication used

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Getting information out:
Municipal governments tend not to have resources or the manpower to allocate to launch social media campaigns as seen in the federal election in Canada and in the presidential election in the US. However, there are many great uses for social media for municipalities, as social media can be an affordable way to connect with citizens. The large user-base of social media applications mean that announcements made through social media will reach thousands, and potentially millions of people instantly. Beyond making sure that the right people are receiving the information, those receiving the information can share it and diffuse it within their network, therefore data is spread with a self-generated momentum, if the information is delivered correctly. It is important that municipalities maintain their social media outputs as consistent, reliable, and timely which would encourage more citizens to subscribe to them. (article on how to use social media to effectively communicate an announcement on a US website: www.socialgovernment.com)

Increasing open dialogue:
Some municipalities in Canada have already begun to use social media as a platform for public forum and discussion with their citizens. The City of Regina is a great example, their Facebook page is used to make announcements to the public as well as to allow citizens to make comments, feedback, announcements, or reports which are then regularly monitored and reviewed by the City. If a municipality were

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to use Twitter to communicate with citizens, a simple hashtag (such as #cityofmontreal) can be used to create open dialogue and spur discussion. Although, using Twitter comes with a great many other benefits and uses which will be discussed later in this article.

Save (taxpayer) money:
Using social media to keep tabs on reports of infrastructure, community, recreational areas, public services etc. is a good way to provide better service to citizens at a fraction of the cost. Rather than paying a professional to search for problems, citizens can use social media to report or complain about an issue in their municipality which can then be addressed directly by the government. Social media can also be analysed using software to extract data and synthesize it. It can be an excellent way for governments to get an idea of their public reputation, opinions on policy changes or events, or general mentality about any chosen topic. Back to the example of the federal election, here is a great example of how social media was used to gauge the standings of parties amongst citizens. Taking a page from behavioural economics, analysis of social media information can help predict or collect reactions to government actions and gauge public opinion.

Increase responsiveness in emergency or crisis situations:
Before any reporters or officials can report on an emergency or crisis situation, people who are directly affected and have access to

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the Internet can report on it through social media within seconds of the first event. See this interesting video of a TED speech by Clay Shirky about social media and citizen reporting with a brief description of Web 2.0 if you have about 15 minutes (start at 5:37 to get to skip the introduction about Web 2.0): Clay Shirkey – How Social Media Can Make History. Essentially, information sources has changed from being top-down to being user generated. Amateur reporting, especially with large volumes is more accurate and rapid and this type of reporting can create huge momentum. Geo-locations of social media reports can help to track the movement of a storm, progression of a protest, earthquake etc. . Governments or response teams can use social media to improve the way they respond to situations with increased accuracy with this new supply of real time, live and contextual information.

Harvesting Twitter:
What does it mean to harvest social media? In short, it is the filtering and extraction of social media outputs from individual members on a particular subject or category. It is a way to get instantaneous information in real time virtually for free. However, there are important things to consider before drinking from this deep well of data. First, there is a privacy issue. If we were to harvest tweets from Twitter, or posts from Facebook, are we infringing on a person’s right to privacy? Some users may choose to allow Twitter to collect geo-locations of tweets, and this information can be very valuable to a government or organization who wants to make use of geo-spatial social media information. This can be considered volunteered geographic information (VGI), but it can also be seen as involuntary geographic information (IVGI) this distinction runs along a fine line and should be seriously considered before embarking on harvesting from social media.

Twitter can be harvested using a simple program that will draw information from the Twitter stream and catalogue it. The Twitter stream is a fire hose (a term that has been coined to mean a massive stream of data) of information, with over 500 million users registered to Twitter and millions of tweets incoming daily. Twitter only allows a small percentage of this to be accessed by codes with regular permissions, known as the fire hose which is a small percentage of information from the whole Twitter stream. From this fire hose then, you can query specific tags and get from it an influx of tweets containing those tags. Geo-locations, where available can be collected as well. This goes beyond searching for a hash-tag through Twitter, and provides an extensive and organized database that can be used for further analysis. Then in the spirit of open data, this database, once synthesized, can be shared with the public to everyone’s benefit.
The problem, of course, is that the general public, organizations or companies do not have unrestricted free access to the firehose (which is generally accessed by analytics firms), but instead has access to the ‘garden hose’, which represents about 1% of the total available data in the fire hose.

Increased transparency, an open government, active conversation between citizens and governments are just some of the great benefits of using social media in municipal governments and organizations. Making use of social media will need to become a standard for governments as a commitment to open government and as the social media world continues expand.