Toronto’s OpenTO data initiative off to quick start

Toronto, Canada unveiled an open data initiative Monday, making it possible for citizens to augment, use and distribute data to promote government accountability and innovation. Toronto.ca/open, or OpenTO, is the city’s official data set catalog and within the first two hours of the Toronto Innovation Showcase, both the benefits and obstacles facing government open data projects were highlighted.

Charles Bess, a Fellow at Hewlett-Packard, delivered the keynote speech at City Hall Monday where he covered a wide array of topics that surround the notion of open government. Mr. Bess said that governments, like big enterprise companies, need to understand how increasingly dynamic their world and their workforce is.

“There is a fundamental shift in the idea of change itself. Its not just a periodic swing from the status quo – change is becoming constant,” he said.

A later panel agreed with Mr. Bess’ assertions that cultivating information and collaboration are central in getting people to participate in open data projects. But the problem, is that data standards are not the same across jurisdictions or even within governments. And even if there are no laws prohibiting the repurpose of some kinds of data, the agency’s legal department may not allow a project to move forward based on an inherent fear of litigation and public relations problems.

Moderator for the opening panel discussion at the Showcase, Maryantonett Flumian, a veteran of Canadian federal Public Service and President of the Institute On Governance, started by saying that government is a “large system” designed to eliminate context and control things in a linear fashion. She said there is an ethos in government that “data is collected to be protected,” and that the concept of data ownership in government is a complex issue.

David Eaves, a public policy and open governance & collaboration expert who has worked with Vancouver on a similar project, kept with that theme, saying the difference between government data in the United States versus Canada was that the Crown owns copyrights in Canada, whereas everything put on a government website in the U.S. is public domain. “There’s got to be a legal framework,” that allows data to be repurposed, Mr. Eaves said.

Mr. Eaves continued by outlining other key ingredients for open data initiatives to work, including easily searchable and machine-readable data, “otherwise [the data] doesn’t exist.” He also made a case that data “is the plankton” that feeds the economy and businesses of the 21st century and by opening up data, entrepreneurs can leverage it in meaningful, sustainable ways.

The final two panelists participating in Toronto’s Innovation Showcase struck chords of optimism – encouraging government to turn away from the red herring arguments that say civic applications derived from open data will make government look bad.

In over sixty applications developed through Peter Corbett’s Apps for Democracy project, “not one app makes the city look bad. Forget the red herring when opening data.” Mr. Corbett is the founder and CEO of iStrategyLabs – a leader in civic application development through open-source and open data initiatives. He advocated for engaging the developer community to make government “smarter, better, faster and cheaper.”

Nick Vitalari, executive vice president at nGenera, agreed with Corbett, adding that, “One of the big roles of government is…to unleash the potential that resides [in its citizens]. Rather than provide services, we want to unleash the potential of our citizens. That is a very powerful notion and a powerful mission for open government.”

OpenTONear the closing of the panel and Q&A session, it was announced that Brian Gilham, creator of TTCupdates, had produced the first mashup, using data available through the city to superimpose Toronto’s wards onto Google maps.

Although admittedly simple, it was a symbolic display of how in a little over two hours since the data had become available, the potential that Mr. Vitalari, Mr. Eaves and Mr. Corbett spoke of was already being taped.

Ms. Flumian spoke for the group when she said, “All of this profoundly does change the nature of our work.”

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