Tag Archives: Peter Johnson

Is Raw Data Bad For You? Open Data Obligations to Government.

By: Leah Cooke, Stephanie Piper, Alana Kingdon, and Peter Johnson

*This blog post was written collaboratively during the springtime Geothink meetup between Ryerson University and University of Waterloo students + faculty. The goals of this meetup were to discuss current and future issues related to Geothink research themes.

What strings are attached to governments that provide open data to citizens? Alongside the current interest in government open data, questions remain about how government should share data. Specifically, what obligations do government have beyond simple data provision. These obligations could include educating citizens, contextualizing data, and also being receptive to citizen feedback on the data provided. For example, if a government publishes drinking water quality data, do they have a (moral, ethical, operational) obligation to support this data with relevant contextualizing information? We propose five main responses that government could provide when answering this question.

1. Nothing

Providing the data as it exists without any contextual information to aid in understanding the data.

2. Metadata

Defining the details of data by including acronyms and field names etc., to make the document readable for technically adept users.

3. Processed data

Data that includes maps, legends, annotations, or graphs/charts to aid in the understanding of the data by viewers, while still including original data to allow for additional analyses.  Also included is descriptive information or explanatory text that may be helpful to user’s understanding of the data.

4. Engagement and Responsiveness:

A responsive format for the distribution of open data would see a commitment to the sustainability of the data itself, by ensuring updates and maintenance to open data portals.  An obligation for citizen engagement would also be present at this level, with governments creating workshops or tools to help citizens become knowledgeable about the data as well as ensuring two-way communication between those with questions or suggestions surrounding the data.

5.  Interoperable Standards for Data Sets

Data sets are released in a standardized format, with the intention of increasing the accessibility of data for novice users as well as for ease of integrating information from different municipalities for regional analyses.

While these five standards are different potential ways government can operationally structure and release their data, the question still remains: which format is ethically or morally the option that should be adopted. Further, government bodies have complex requirements to abide by legislation, including the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), that also need to be considered when releasing any information. Do these requirements alter these obligations?  Beyond the regulations themselves, further accessibility issues are also raised.  Should the data be accessible by various levels of users, from novice to expert?  What does this mean for the ethical framework surrounding the release of the data?  As data is often released in formats only recognized by technical users such as .csv files, is there an additional obligation to release data that is open to nontechnical users as well? Inherent in the name, open data is the assumption that this data is being released in order to create an increase in transparency. It would be natural to assume that this data should therefore be accessible to users regardless of their technical skill levels.

In conclusion, for municipal governments, providing raw data is really just the first step. Governments that are serious about using open data as a prelude or support to open government need to also provide tools and support to enable data being turned into information. Metadata is not enough, and open data does not replace targeted information and publications created internally and shared with citizens.

Mobile Feedback Applications for Base Map Editing

If governments wish to maximize citizen contributions on issues as varied as fixing maps, reporting potholes and commenting on social housing, they likely need easy-to-use tools for citizens to do so. One answer could be on mobile phones. Tool-building is more than a technical issue. Mobile devices have an increasingly central role in our daily activities; they become intermediaries for our interactions with each other, the environment, businesses, and institutions. Recent advances in mobile device and computerized mapping (geographic information system, or GIS) technology have presented us with the potential to develop applications that mediates citizen interactions with government, using geographic base maps as a conduit. This project asks how mobile device technology can allow citizens to contribute to the updating and editing of official maps of their home city. This asserted information would then be incorporated into an authoritative map product. We move beyond the simple citizen-as-sensor or crowdsourcing paradigm to explore how governments not only accept volunteered citizen content (volunteered geographic information, or VGI) delivered through a mobile device, but how citizens become partners with government. This two-way relationship can be formalized through the development of a specific workflow where government workers verify citizen map edits and provide feedback to citizens. In this way, VGI may be integrated into formal governance and decision-making channels.

We anticipate that mobile applications will be the next generation platform for Open 311 and open government. Many issues will arise about their utility and around authentication of data. We want your ideas about and participation in this research! Contact Peter Johnson, pa2johns@uwaterloo.ca, or Rob Feick, robert.feick@uwaterloo.ca.