Open Data in Edmonton is exciting again

After a few years of stagnation, I feel like open data in Edmonton is exciting again. This has been a great year for open data and open government in our city! Here’s an update on what’s been happening.

International Open Data Day really kicked things off back in February with a hackathon hosted by EPL at the new Makerspace. It was a great opportunity for developers to come together to take a fresh look at the municipal, provincial, and federal data catalogues, all of which have grown considerably in the last year or so.

International Open Data Day Hackathon

In May, a group of interested citizens organized a hackathon called HackYEG. Mayor Iveson spoke at the event which was a great success and led to a number of really interesting projects. The event also led to a new citizen meetup, called Open Edmonton. The group was started by Lydia Zvyagintseva and David Rauch and meets at Startup Edmonton on the third Wednesday of every month. Follow them on Twitter for the latest events and other “open” news.

The City of Edmonton unveiled its Open City Initiative in June, which highlighted a number of principles, goals, and objectives that will help to make Edmonton an Open City. It’s heavy on talk and light on action, but it signals a renewed effort on the part of the City to support open data and related initiatives. Importantly, it also opened the door to a policy on open data and open government, which would change the dynamic inside the City from “we could support this” to “we must support this.”

open city framework

The federal government began a series of consultations in February this year to gather input on Canada’s Action Plan on Open Government 2.0. Edmonton was included in those consultations, with a roundtable event that took place on August 27. Treasury Board President Tony Clement hosted the session that was attended by representatives from the City of Edmonton, Province of Alberta, industry, and the community at large.

Treasury Board President Tony Clement
Treasury Board President Tony Clement

MP Clement was also in Edmonton talking about open data last year, gathering input for the 1.0 verson of the plan. The draft 2.0 plan will be available for review and comment starting October 6.

At the end of August, I think open data scored a small but important victory when the results of the 2014 Municipal Census were made available. For the first time, the data was in the open data catalogue at the same time as it was released to the public in PDF and via the media. A sign that the Open City Initiative is being taken seriously, perhaps?

Earlier this month Edmonton hosted a stop on the cross-Canada motorcycle tour on open government undertaken by Richard Pietro. The whole idea behind the tour was to “ignite conversation about open government and open data” and to “encourage citizens to become more civically engaged.” A number of local advocates spoke at the event, which highlighted some of the success Edmonton has had with regards to open data. Here’s a recap from Richard himself.

Open Government Tour
Photo by Richard Pietro

Last week I was one of five speakers at the Lunchalytics event focused on open data. Chris Moore, Eugene Chen, Mark Diner, and Michael Parkatti also spoke about open data and analytics. The room was packed and some really great projects and initiatives were highlighted, such as the Alberta Economic Dashboard. There’s clearly a growing interest in such visualizations and tools.

Later this week I’m speaking at the Right to Know Forum, hosted by Alberta’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton. The event will feature presentations on right to access, information management, open data initiatives, and the benefits of open data. It’s a sign of just how far open data has come that OIPC is hosting a forum on the topic!

Throughout the year, the various data catalogues have been growing. And it’s not just Canada, Alberta, and Edmonton that are making datasets available. Other communities in the Edmonton Region are getting behind open data too, like the County of Strathcona which now has more than 100 datasets available to citizens. Even St. Albert has started experimenting with open data, through its Property Search tool (which allows you to export the data).

I know that some Edmontonians, like Matthew Dance, Chris Moore, and Mark Diner, have always been local open data advocates, even and especially during the years I’m calling stagnant. But lately it’s refreshing to see an entirely new group of Edmontonians getting involved. Just this evening I was at a meeting in which the City’s open data catalogue was referenced (and not by me!). There’s a growing awareness and interest that is encouraging.

If you’ve been on the fence about open data or have been thinking about learning more, now’s the time. Check out Open Edmonton and get involved!

Talking open data in Edmonton with Minister Tony Clement

Tony Clement, President of the Treasury Board of Canada, was in Edmonton today as part of a cross-country tour to gather feedback from the Open Data community. The federal government is preparing to launch a revamped Open Data Portal, and Minister Clement has been given the mandate to make it happen. After stops in the morning at Startup Edmonton and TEC Edmonton, Minister Clement was at City Hall for an Open Data Roundtable, hosted by the one and only David Eaves.

"Open Data is a global movement that is really gaining momentum across the country. Our Government wants to ensure we are making it as accessible as possible so that innovators and enthusiasts can harness this rich resource," said Minister Clement. "We are getting ready to unveil the next generation Open Data Portal and the input we received from Edmonton’s vibrant Open Data community will help us build a user-friendly site that will allow users to capitalize on this opportunity."

In addition to holding face-to-face meetings, Minister Clement also hosted a Google Hangout on Open Data last month. You can watch the whole thing here:

I was fortunate enough to be invited to the roundtable today, along with roughly two-dozen other Edmontonians interested in open data. We had a very limited amount of time to chat, but I think we still discussed a wide range of topics. I hope the information gathered was indeed valuable for the team in charge of the new portal.

As host, David organized our time around a series of questions. The first was to suggest ideas for what the next generation open data portal should be. We broke into small groups and then shared ideas back with the larger group.

The first thing I suggested was that it should not look like it was designed in 1995. I find all of the Government of Canada websites lacking in the aesthetics department! Certainly there’s something to be said for consistency, and I understand there’s an initiative underway to reimagine the entire GoC web presence. On the flip side of consistency though are the preconceptions that you may not want to be carried forward. If I look at the Open Data Portal today, it looks like every other government site, which makes me think it’ll be a mess of weird hierarchies and PDFs buried away. It’s not very welcoming or inviting!

Another theme was based around the idea that we can’t build a data portal that serves all possible audiences. But, we can do more than we are currently. So my group discussed the idea of intent-based profiles. The idea is you’d login, set some criteria like whether you’re a developer or not, and maybe your location, and the portal would then give you a personalized view. Of course, anonymous access should be preserved, so it shouldn’t be a requirement that you need to login.

Three other themes that emerged included: historical data and the realization that any data we create now will at some point become historical, articulated well by Heather and Maureen; the notion that the portal should facilitate the two-way movement of data, so that citizens can publish data into the catalogue as well as get data out of it; and the fact that documentation about data is important, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be created top-down.

The second question was related to datasets, both specific datasets that we’d like, but also criteria that make datasets valuable and/or interesting. The first thing that came to mind for me was geography. I’d love to be able to see all of the datasets related to Edmonton, or to municipalities, or to Alberta, or to provinces. Right now you have to really hunt to find datasets that compare cities, for instance.

I think Matt‘s two suggestions in response this question were spot on. The first was that the data he finds interesting is the data that makes the government uncomfortable. Minister Clement jumped in to assure us that there’s no conspiracy preventing certain datasets from being released. That would suggest a level of organization that most governments just don’t have, he joked. The second suggestion was that geographical data should be a key foundational dataset. Let’s see a base map of the country, zoomable to the neighbourhood level. Or to whatever smaller regions exist, whether it’s postal code, census district, garbage collection zone, or something else. I love this idea, and my only add-on suggestion was that geographical data doesn’t necessarily have to mean maps. Knowing the list of neighbourhoods or postal codes can be incredibly valuable outside of a map as well.

A few other themes that emerged about datasets were trends and historical data (I personally love the idea of a revision history for any datasets), some sort of metadata (the first dataset any portal should have is the list of datasets it contains, David suggested), and the notion of a data management plan.

We finished up the roundtable with a brief discussion on data standards, followed by a few minutes of open time. I spoke up on data standards along with Ben and Eugene, and suggested that data standards fall squarely under the "nice to have" category. It would be great if different datasets shared a common format, but we’d rather just have the data and worry about the differences with an abstraction layer.

Final thoughts mentioned by the group included dogfooding (the government should actively use its own data portal and datasets), the idea that everyone carries a phone and could be contributing data back into the catalogue, and the future world described by Devin that I think can be summarized as the Internet of Things. "The idea that we searched a catalogue of datasets will seem just as quaint as when we searched the web using Lycos," he said.

I really enjoyed the roundtable today, and I appreciate Minister Clement and David Eaves taking the time to listen to what we had to say. Thanks also to Chris and Ashley from the City for providing the venue and helping to facilitate.

Reflecting on it now, I think what I enjoyed most about the roundtable was the opportunity to chat with people in the local open data community. I haven’t given open data as much public attention lately as I should, and when you shift your gaze elsewhere it’s easy to miss all of the incredible people doing great things.

Recap: CityCamp Edmonton

Canada’s first CityCamp was held here in Edmonton on Saturday at the Robbins Health Learning Centre downtown. Roughly 50 people attended the unconference focused on innovation for municipal governments and community organizations. We had a nice mix of municipal employees, developers, journalists, and citizens.

We started the day off with this timeline of Edmonton’s open data journey (click for a larger version):

A brief history of open data in Edmonton

It was a joint effort to create this. Jess put it together with input from myself and Ashley, and Raffaella created a Prezi for us. I was struck by two things when reflecting on the timeline:

  1. This journey really didn’t start that long ago. I guess two years in the technology world is a long time, but it’s pretty quick in the world of municipal governments.
  2. I was instantly reminded of London’s tube map when I looked at the timeline, which is fitting as so much of our open data journey in Edmonton has been based around transit. It was the GTFS feed that ETS made available to developers that really kicked things off back in 2009.

With that foundation in place, we invited everyone to pitch their topics for the day. There was a nice range of topics suggested, everything from “Modeling the Value of Open Gov” to “Increasing Awareness of Apps Among Edmontonians”.

CityCamp Edmonton

Raffaella and Ashley acted as our gridmasters, and arranged the topics into the day’s agenda. We broke into groups and the discussions began!

CityCamp Edmonton

The sessions I participated in looked at the media’s role in open government, the importance of archiving and digital preservation, and the benefits of open data in small municipalities. I really enjoyed the discussions and I think everyone got something out of them, even if it was just inspiration or motivation to go away and do something!

CityCamp EdmontonCityCamp Edmonton

In the session on small municipalities, I thought Devin made a really great point. He said that open data adoption today is kind of like website adoption was 15 years ago or so. At the time, having a website was a new concept, and municipalities approached it much like they are approaching open data now – with uncertainty, hesitation, and even resistance. Today every municipality has a website. How did we get over those initial roadblocks? Devin suggested that tooling has a lot to do with it, which echoed some of the discussion we had in the media session earlier in the day. Tools like FrontPage really opened up the floodgates and made it easy for people to create a website. We have since moved on to better things, of course, but it was an important enabler early on. Perhaps we need the open-data-equivalent of FrontPage for open data to really take off as well. In the media session we identified tools as one of the things holding up wider adoption of open data by journalists.

A session I didn’t participate in but which looked like a lot of fun was the modeling open government one. Jess was determined to have at least one session that wasn’t sitting around in a circle talking, and he succeeded!

CityCamp Edmonton

The space we were in was great, with lots of natural light (which I think is really important), though it was somewhat difficult to find in the morning. Everything worked out though!

CityCamp EdmontonCityCamp Edmonton

Though we did have a discussion about actions arising from the day’s sessions, I think drilling down on collective actions is always difficult at events like CityCamp. For me, the day was an opportunity to connect with other people thinking about the same issues and topics. That said, here are a few things you can do to take action right now:

  • Look at the open data catalogue, and start using the data. Share the things you’re doing with it!
  • As you come up with ideas that require data sets that aren’t currently available, add them to the UserVoice. I will take an action to clean that site up a bit!
  • Notes from the day will be going up on Civic Commons, so that’s a great place to capture and share your thoughts on open government in Edmonton.

Thanks to everyone who participated on Saturday! You can see my photos from the day here, and Jess’ photos here.

First look at Canada’s new Open Data portal:

Yesterday the Government of Canada launched its open data portal at Open Data is one of three Open Government Initiatives, the other two being Open Information and Open Dialogue. Stockwell Day, President of the Treasury Board and Minister for the Asia-Pacific Gateway, issued a statement today on the launch:

“Today, I am pleased to announce the next step in our government’s commitment to enhancing transparency and accountability to Canadians. The expansion of open government will give Canadians the opportunity to access public information in more useful and readable formats, enable greater insight into the inner workings of the Government and empower citizens to participate more directly in the decision-making process.”

He goes on in the statement to say that Canada has historically led the way in providing information to citizens. Lately though, we’ve definitely fallen behind. I’m glad to see us moving forward once again. This development is no doubt the result of lots of work by many passionate Canadians, such as David Eaves. Here’s what he posted yesterday:

The launch of is an important first step. It gives those of us interested in open data and open government a vehicle by which to get more data open and improve the accountability, transparency as well as business and social innovation.

David does a good job in that post of highlighting some of the issues the site currently faces, such as some problematic wording in the licensing, so I won’t repeat that here. Instead, I figured I’d do what I always do when I get new datasets to play with – make some charts!

The open data portal says there are 261,077 datasets currently available. Just 781 of those are “general” datasets, the rest are geospatial. That’s an impressive number of geospatial datasets, but they are somewhat less accessible (and perhaps less interesting) to the average Canadian than the general datasets. It looks like you need to be able to work with an ESRI Shape File to use most of them.

There are lots of general datasets you might find interesting, however. For example, here’s the Consumer Price Index by city:

Here’s another dataset I thought was interesting – the number of foreign workers that have entered Canada, by region:

Have you ever wondered how much of each type of milk Albertans consume? You can find that out:

There’s actually a fairly broad range of datasets available, such as weather, agriculture, economics, and much more. As David said, it’s a good first step.

I’m excited to see more ministries get involved, and I hope to see the number of datasets available increase over time. I’d also love to see the licensing change, perhaps by adopting the UK Open Government License as David suggested. Exciting times ahead!

Recap: Open City Workshop

Saturday’s Open City Workshop at the Art Gallery of Alberta was a fantastic event! Excellent turnout, great discussions, and lots of enthusiasm for the open data/open government movement here in Edmonton. We started the day with some opening remarks from Councillor Don Iveson, CIO Chris Moore, and FusedLogic’s Walter Schwabe. I really liked Don’s key values: transparency, empowerment, and collaboration.

Open City WorkshopOpen City Workshop

Next up was the panel, featuring David Eaves, Nick Charney, Mark Kuznicki, and Alayne Sinclair. They talked about what open government meant to them, took an odd detour into voting, and took some questions from the audience as well. Here are a few of the key things that stood out for me:

  • The idea of government as a platform is not new!
  • It’s about empowering citizens to make the city their own, enabling them to go after their passions.
  • Engagement is often a sign that you need to do something differently, not necessarily that you’re doing something right.
  • Civil servants are citizens too!
  • Open government is part of a broader cultural shift, and citizens have a responsibility to become participants.

I really enjoyed the panel – it was the highlight of the day for me. It was great to finally meet David, Nick, and Mark in person too.

After some forced networking and a break for lunch, the unconference part of the day got underway. We broke into smaller groups to discuss things like the role of journalism and storytelling in open data, the digital divide, thinking beyond technology solutions, and timelines/deliverables.

Open City WorkshopOpen City Workshop

Open City WorkshopOpen City Workshop

I attended the role of journalism and storytelling first, and we seemed to reach the consensus that storytelling is vital for open data/open government to succeed. We need everyone to tell stories, so that we achieve a diverse range of views. We also felt that journalism has a role to play in bridging the gap that exists between those who “get it” and those who don’t. The second session I attended was on engaging residents not familiar with technology. We ended up talking a lot about deliberative dialogue, and I was left with a lot to think about – how will access to open data affect the way a citizen looks at the world? We’re naturally selective, does open data change anything in that regard? For some thoughts on the other two sessions, check out Stella’s recap.

Open City WorkshopOpen City Workshop

Another really great aspect of the day was that it was streamed live online by FusedLogic in both English and French. There were dozens of people participating virtually, from Edmonton and around the world! I understand that they even held their own breakout discussion in the afternoon! Kudos to the FusedLogic team for taking on such a big task, and making it work so well.

At the end of the day, Chris Moore took the stage once again to make a few announcements:

  • An RFP has gone out for the design and implementation of the next generation of productivity technologies at the City of Edmonton.
  • The City of Edmonton is partnering on, to bring open standards for 311.
  • On April 19, the City of Edmonton is planning to launch an iPhone app called CityWatch, developed by local company Touchmetric.
  • The City of Edmonton is calling for the creation of a “Code for Canada” organization, modeled after Code for America.
  • There will be an Apps4Edmonton app contest in the near future, with the prizes and winners to be showcased at GTEC2010 in October.

Exciting stuff! Congrats to Chris and his team for putting on a great event.

Stay tuned to the #openyeg and #yegdata hashtags on Twitter for updates, as well as the City of Edmonton’s open city page. You can see the rest of my photos here, and you can see the City’s photoset here. You can see a list of the attendees on Twitter here.

I’ll leave you with this TED video of Tim Berners-Lee talking about open data:

Bring on the data!

Open City Workshop & Participation Inequality

The City of Edmonton is hosting a workshop tomorrow at the Art Gallery of Alberta called Building Community through Open Information (on ShareEdmonton). It’s a follow-up to the open data workshop that happened last year and the conversations that have taken place since, but is focused on connecting stakeholders, increasing a shared understanding of Government 2.0, and planning the way forward. Devin wrote some great thoughts on the workshop here.

I’m really looking forward to seeing a diverse local crowd, representing a variety of agencies and interests. I’m also looking forward to meeting special guests David Eaves, Mark Kuznicki, and Nicholas Charney in person. All three are key players in Canada’s open government space.

And while I’m hopeful that we’ll see some new data released tomorrow, I’m mindful that data is not the focus. The three objectives listed on the event details page are about establishing Edmonton as a leader, and then lots of talk. I think the way you establish yourself as a leader is by actually doing things, but I’ll keep an open mind tomorrow 🙂

One thing I do want to talk about at the workshop is the divide that a number of people have picked up on. It’s great that Edmonton and other places are making progress on opening up data, but how does that impact the average citizen? There’s definitely a perception that only techies understand and can use open data. I don’t think that gives the average citizen enough credit, but I’m willing to concede that open data is not as accessible today as it needs to be. There’s lots of room for improvement.

Having said that, I think it’s important to keep participation inequality in mind:

All large-scale, multi-user communities and online social networks that rely on users to contribute content or build services share one property: most users don’t participate very much. Often, they simply lurk in the background.

If we think of open data (and open government) as a large community, then we should absolutely expect that a small subset of that community will be responsible for most of the activity. In the context of the 90-9-1 rule, 90% of the community won’t participate (they just observe or read), 9% will occasionally participate, and 1% will participate a lot.

Here’s one way to visualize the open community:

I’m sure there are other ways to break it down, but this makes the most sense to me at the moment.

  1. Goverati: these are government employees, folks from related agencies, non-profits, etc.
  2. Creative Professionals: these are people such as myself, developers, designers, etc.
  3. Business: for-profit organizations.
  4. Citizens: ultimately, the beneficiaries of all this open government stuff!

Of course, this picture is somewhat misleading, because all goverati, creative professionals, and business folks are also citizens, but let’s set that aside for now. I think the goverati and some creative professionals fall into the 1% category, the rest of the creative professionals and business fall into the 9% category, and citizens account for the 90% category.

The 90-9-1 pattern can be seen in action all over the web, perhaps most notably on Wikipedia. A tiny percentage of Wikipedia’s user base is responsible for the vast majority of all content produced. I think we can do better with open data/open government, however. Through applications, interactive visualizations, and the other interesting things that the goverati, creative professionals, and businesses build, I think more and more citizens will move from the 90% category to the 9% category.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that considering how the average citizen benefits from open data is important, but we shouldn’t let that hold us back from making progress at this point. We need to empower businesses and creative professionals to build things that the average citizen will ultimately benefit from. As we do that, there’s an opportunity to educate citizens if they want to be educated!

There’s only a few hours left to register for the event. Hope to see you there!

What would make you attend the Open Data event on March 6?

As you might have seen on Twitter, the City of Edmonton is planning another open data event for Saturday, March 6, 2010 at City Hall. If you haven’t already, block that day off in your calendar! It’ll be a great opportunity to connect with others who are interested in open data and open government, as well as a chance to provide feedback to the City on its data catalogue and plans for the future.

And who knows, if we’re lucky, there might even be some new data to play with! For more information on the data catalogue, which launched last month, click here.

The details for the event will go up on the website soon I’m sure, but first we need to have a better idea of what everyone wants to get out of the event. Here are some ideas:

  • An unconference, followed by a hack night. Maybe a keynote to kick things off, then time for unconference-style discussions about open data and open government. The hack night could take a variety of forms, and the discussions could be wide-ranging.
  • Discussing how to frame open data in terms of citizen benefit might a potential topic. Why would my parents or grandparents be interested in open data?
  • One idea for the hack night is to get some developers together to try to improve the tooling around OGDI. This might be writing custom formatters (CSV, plist, etc) or perhaps something else. All of this would be contributed to the community.
  • Another idea is to hold a competition – what can you build in just one evening?!
  • Or a twist on that, a competition where teams produce mockups & ideas, not necessarily a working app.
  • Or the hack night could be as simple as a walk-through of how to use the open data catalogue, etc. Or maybe it’s a longer “hack day”.

What do you think? What would make you attend the open data event on March 6? Either leave a comment below, or email with your suggestions.

It would be great to have representatives from a variety of organizations too, not just the City and developers. If you’re at all interested in open data or open government, please join us. Hope to see you there!