Edmonton was one of the first cities in the world to launch an open data catalogue and to embrace the notion of open government. But unlike in the world of tech startups, municipalities don’t enjoy much of a first-mover advantage. Edmonton’s data catalogue has grown slowly over the last four years, and there has been more talk than action when it comes to “open government” initiatives. Has anything been happening behind the scenes? What more can we be doing?
At its March 4, 2014 meeting, Executive Committee asked for an update on “how the City is improving transparency by provision of usable data through the Open Data Catalogue and Open Government approach” to help answer those questions. A report on the Open City Initiative is being discussed today as a result.
Open City Initiative
The Open City Initiative is described as follows:
“Edmonton is aspiring to fulfill its role as a preeminent global city: innovative, inclusive and engaged. Building such a city takes foresight, planning and active participation by its citizens. A great city is an open city.”
“The purpose of the Open City Initiative is to formalize the goals of the organization and empower staff to lead our transition to being an Open City.”
The twelve-page report on the Open City Initiative highlights five principles. As an Open City, Edmonton is transparent, participatory, collaborative, inclusive, and innovative. The initiative also encompasses five goals and related objectives, which I have listed here:
- Information and data are managed as a strategic resource.
- Edmonton is a connected city.
- Employees act responsibly when managing, maintaining and making public information available.
- The City will take a coordinated, consistent and strategic approach to public engagement.
- The City will employ innovative approaches to engage with Edmontonians in ways that are relevant to them.
- City data will be publicly available.
- City data will be accessible and usable.
- Build accountability and trust through ongoing reporting.
- The City proactively provides valued information to the public in multiple channels.
- Leverage technology and news business models to enhance service delivery for Edmontonians.
- Support dialogue and consultation with constituents and stakeholders.
Collectively, the initiatives and programs underway to support those goals and objectives form the Open City Framework:
There’s very little to argue with in the report. Edmonton should be a connected city, the City should take a strategic approach to public engagement, City data should be publicly available, etc. Some of the initiatives shown as “current”, such as the Public Engagement Calendar, still need a lot of work, but the arrows suggest all of those initiatives are ongoing.
Though the City first launched a data catalogue in January 2010, it was quickly replaced by the current Socrata-powered catalogue which launched in July 2011. That’s the catalogue they have been building on ever since. There are currently 437 datasets in the catalogue.
Here’s a look at the number of datasets that have been added to the catalogue over time:
It’s certainly not a hockey stick, but it is creeping up (at a rate of 2-3 per week). One of the great things about data catalogues powered by services like Socrata is that you can access a dataset about all the datasets they contain. Here’s the list of all datasets in the City of Edmonton’s data catalog.
Another interesting data point to consider is the freshness of those datasets. Some are historical in nature and don’t need to be updated very often, while others get updated frequently, perhaps every month.
What this shows is that 56% of the datasets available in the catalogue were last updated some time in 2014. My guess is a large percentage of the data managed by the City is more historical in nature, but the catalogue doesn’t reflect that. It’s an important point, because historical data is incredibly important for spotting trends that might result in “new insights and better decision making”.
The City estimates that it manages around 1.64 petabytes of data. If you download the entire data catalogue as it exists today, it’ll take up about 1.9 GB of space1. That means that it contains just 0.0001% of all the data managed by the City. Not all of that data is appropriate for the catalogue of course, but it does show there’s lots of room for growth.
I think there are some key positives to highlight in the report. The Open City Initiative establishes a clear connection to The Way Ahead, which is important for ensuring that open data and open government are part of Edmonton’s future.
“The Open City Initiative articulates how the organization will advance the City’s Vision and strategic objectives defined in The Way Ahead and the Open City Principles.”
Another encouraging aspect of the report is how seriously public engagement is treated. There is of course a Council initiative on public engagement underway, and Administration itself has been undertaking actions to improve the way it engages Edmontonians (which at one point was known as the Corporate Approach to Public Engagement). It’s great to see recognition in a City document of the need to incorporate new tools and approaches, including social media, sentiment-analysis, and more. Importantly, the report also highlights the necessity of making the results of public input accessible and readily available to citizens.
I’m excited to see Open 311 mentioned as well. The City’s 311 service seems to have received more criticism than praise over the years, and I think that has slowed down the adoption of technology improvements to the service. I think 311 is an extremely strategic and valuable asset that should be expanded and opened up. There’s not nearly enough reporting back to the public on how effective 311 is, and clear opportunities for deeper and ongoing engagement with citizens are being missed.
Though there are many positives in the report, I have some concerns too.
First and foremost, we’ve heard that the City wants to add more datasets to the open data catalogue for years, but as shown above, the pace has not quickened. Why should it be any different this time? Of the 35 data requests publicly submitted by Edmontonians, just 8 have been approved. Some have been open for nearly 3 years, without so much as a comment in response.
Another concern is that while the report lists a number of actions that will be taken to achieve the objectives of the Open City Initiative, none of those actions reference changes to resources. Will new people be hired? Will resources be shifted from other efforts? How is the City going to expand and improve on open data, public engagement, data analytics, and digital service delivery when it’s still the same handful of people doing that work off the sides of their desks?
The only large change that has happened recently was the departure of CIO Chris Moore early this year, which happened just months after the new General Manager of IT and Services Kate Rozmahel re-joined the City. She was formerly the CIO at the City of Edmonton, before moving to the Province of Alberta where she was Assistant Deputy Minister of Service Alberta. I can appreciate she’s only been back for six months, and perhaps needs more time to reorganize her teams, but it’s a concern nonetheless.
Both the provincial and federal governments have become increasingly active in the world of open data and open government, yet there’s no mention of those efforts in this report. Are there no opportunities for connection, or to learn from one another? There’s also no follow-up on previously announced initiatives, such as the G4 working group on a national data strategy or efforts to establish common data formats with other cities.
Most importantly, the lack of any public engagement on the Open City Initiative is really disappointing. There’s absolutely no suggestion in the report that citizens were engaged in the creation of this initiative. I was asked for a quote in March by the consultant that wrote the report, but that’s it. I didn’t provide one, and I see no others mentioned in the report.
The City was very active in 2009 and 2010 in reaching out to Edmontonians interested in open data and open government, but that activity ceased long ago. Aside from the launch of the Citizen Dashboard in 2012, there hasn’t been much action from the City on open data or open government. Yes they participated in International Open Data Day a few months ago, but it was the library that led that initiative. Likewise, the open data hackathon that took place in May was led by the community. There’s a small but growing community of Edmontonians interested in this work!
It doesn’t seem the principles of the Open City Initiative – transparent, participatory, collaborative, inclusive, innovative – applied to the creation of the initiative itself.
Toward a more open Edmonton
This report and the Open City Initiative continue an unfortunate trend: Council asks for an update on how open data is going and Administration replies with the equivalent of “it’s all good.” That’s why Edmonton has never adopted an open charter or Council motion supporting open government like some other cities have. As a result, buy-in from the various silos within the City has been difficult to achieve.
I’m very pleased that the City has identified and articulated a clear set of principles, goals, and objectives with respect to being an open city, but I don’t think that’s enough. The two key missing ingredients here are demonstrable buy-in from citizens, and measurable, impactful actions that will bring the vision of an open Edmonton to life.
I like the direction outlined in the Open City Initiative, unfortunately I just don’t have much confidence that it’ll go beyond a report and lots of talk. I hope Council and the City can prove me wrong, because I want to live in an open city.