Toronto CIO looks to promote sustainable open data strategy

Last week, the City of Toronto added several datasets to its growing catalog of government data. Toronto CIO Dave Wallace spoke to CivSource about the newest release and his team’s efforts to make open data and transparent government a routine part of civil service in Toronto.

In November of 2009, Toronto unveiled the official city data catalog, Toronto.ca/open or OpenTO, and the city’s open community launched DataTO.org, which is a site for developers and interested parties to discuss and request datasets, at the same time. But Mr. Wallace said the push for city government to behave more like the World Wide Web began earlier than that. Nearly a year before the launch of DataTO and OpenTO, the city held Web 2.0 Summit where Toronto-native and Mozilla Foundation Executive Director Mark Surman gave a keynote which struck a chord with Mayor David Miller. In his speech, Mr. Surman encouraged the city to “think like the web”, that by enabling citizens to help the city, (as a community of developers supports open source software and a better Web experience) the city can be more effective, efficient and responsive to its citizens.

From this effort in November 2008, Mesh2009 (held in April) served as a springboard to announce that Toronto would have datasets available for use to the public later in the year.

“It became force du jour,” Mr. Wallace said, “We talked with other cities – San Francisco, Ottawa, Vancouver, Edmonton, Washington DC – about how best to get started.”

Mr. Wallace also said his team began working with the community to start identifying the demand-side of Toronto’s datasets.

“DataTO.org is the open community that pointed out demand areas and Mayor Miller pulled the big switch on the catalog,” Wallace said.

The beta launch of OpenTO and DataTO showed how quickly the city’s data could be put to use. On the first day of its release, Brian Gilham, creator of TTCupdates, had produced the first mashup, using data available through the city to superimpose Toronto’s wards onto Google maps. In May of this year, Toronto released data for its annual Doors Open Toronto event, where for one weekend 150 buildings of architectural, historic, cultural and social significance open their doors to the public.

Keith Mcdonald, Web Strategy Coordinator for the city, said they released XML data for the sites, and literally overnight an app was developed (also by Mr. Gilham) to see sites on maps and feature information through the iPhone.

It was a “multi-type, mobile application that was developed very quickly,” Mr. Mcdonald said.

“It shows the power of open data,” Mr. Wallace added.

In the newest release of data at OpenTO, the city released information on bike lanes, health food inspections, elections, road restrictions and other traffic-oriented data. It is part of an on-going effort by the Toronto CIO to help city government (and their private sector partners) ingrain open data protocols into their everyday workflow.

“One of the things we’ve learned, and are distilling to other cities, is that you have to work with protocols and with other entities to update their data,” Wallace argued. One of those entities is TTC, or the Toronto Transit Commission, which operates the city’s various modes of public transportation. TTC is top of mind for a lot of people, Wallace said, and the department is working to overcome data ownership and sourcing issues, but it takes time.

“One thing people have to remember is how much extra work goes into releasing open data. We are working to make it an extension of our routine disclosure process – to work through a data quality checklist.”

“But we have to make sure we’re not improperly sourcing or violating copyright,” which takes on a different form of concern for Canadian governments, compared to US cities and states, Wallace said. Privacy is another key issue, Mr. Mcdonald added, noting the importance of educating the public on what can be released, what cannot and why.

In working with partner cities to confront these and other data issues, Toronto, Edmonton, Vancouver and Ottawa are collaborating through a WordPress environment, to share information, set up chat sessions and brainstorm about how to integrate open data into regular processes as a regular means of doing business. And the development group at DataTO.org continues to draw attention.

“We see continued faith and demand on this and that’s a good thing,” Wallace said, despite the decision not to hold an apps contest.

“We struggled with the idea of contests,” he said, “it can kick-start your efforts, but it’s not a sustainable strategy. Can you really keep things up to date? What keeps it going? There have been some unclear results longer-term.”

“[Open data] can’t be a one-time thing, or it starts to have a ‘legacy’ mindset. It isn’t like that, it’s an ongoing process…you have to build it in because the public now expects it.”

Looking into the future, Wallace says he’s excited to release more data sets. A planned release is targeted for November 2010 and the city is planning to make 311 data a major part of the next release. Mr. Wallace indicated it may include a portal view, to see how 311 is performing and to see how the city is managing requests.

“Open data shouldn’t be a giant make-work project, but part of what you do everyday. We’re excited to continue it forward.”

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