Special Report: Open Public Data

Time for Open Government Data in Hamilton

Open data is difficult to explain with words alone. A visualization combined with citizen delegations will give Councillors a full picture of what Open Data means and why they need to embrace it.

By Joey Coleman
Published October 29, 2010

Do you want to see what the election results look like poll by poll? Are you interested in learning how to participate in making Hamilton an Open Data City? Do you want to be more informed? Are you interested in contributing your skills online?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, join us this Saturday, 11:00 AM, at the Mulberry Cafe, James Street North and Mulberry Street, as we take the next step towards making Hamilton an Open Data city.

A sign from the Open City Workshop in Edmonton, AB says it all. (Image Credit: Mack Male (mastermaq) / Flickr)
A sign from the Open City Workshop in Edmonton, AB says it all. (Image Credit: Mack Male (mastermaq) / Flickr)

Everyone can contribute. You don't have to be a web programmer or computer nerd.

What is Open Data?

Open Data is the philosophy and practice of providing public data in an accessible electronic format that is free from copyright, patents, and other restrictions.

The principles of open government data are best summarized in the Eight Principles of Open Government Data developed by the Open Government Working Group.

Government data shall be considered open if it is made public in a way that complies with the principles below:

  1. Complete: All public data is made available. Public data is data that is not subject to valid privacy, security or privilege limitations.
  2. Primary: Data is as collected at the source, with the highest possible level of granularity, not in aggregate or modified forms.
  3. Timely: Data is made available as quickly as necessary to preserve the value of the data.
  4. Accessible: Data is available to the widest range of users for the widest range of purposes.
  5. Machine processable: Data is reasonably structured to allow automated processing.
  6. Non-discriminatory: Data is available to anyone, with no requirement of registration.
  7. Non-proprietary: Data is available in a format over which no entity has exclusive control.
  8. License-free: Data is not subject to any copyright, patent, trademark or trade secret regulation. Reasonable privacy, security and privilege restrictions may be allowed.

How Will Mapping Old Data Help to Open New Data?

Transferring electoral data into an open format and using that data to visualize the results will show City Councillors and the Mayor what's possible by allowing citizens to access public information in real-time.

By using data that's of interest to both the entire general public and especially elected officials, we significant increase our chances of getting City Council to pass a strong motion adopting an actual Open Data policy.

At present, we have a concept that is difficult to explain with words alone. A visualization combined with citizen delegations will give Councillors a full picture of what Open Data means and prevent the idea from being dispatched into the abyss of bureaucracy.

What can we do with these maps?

The City of Hamilton's voting location application did not include many addresses. The limitation was it didn't use geographic data to calculate voting location - it used an old table not much different than a paper telephone directory.

We can use our maps to provide the City a comprehensive voting location application that operates on every platform. It was disgraceful not to have any electoral data in mobile format in 2010. To think the City will continue using an outdated table on an outdated website in 2014 leaves me without the words.

What else could we do with Open Data?

The possibilities are endless. We could track traffic patterns, and have a map that informs people of accidents and delays. We could map the demographics of the city to improve public policy to better address poverty. We can use the same demographic information to attract new businesses to open in Hamilton.

My idea

Getting access to the data from the City's electronic voting system in Council Chambers and have a record of every single vote taken by Council. Imagine knowing where your Councillor stood on any issue.

Every time a Councillor speaks, a command is sent to start counting down their five minutes of speaking time. (Not that they actually keep to their time.) The system logs which Councillor is speaking and notes if its their first, second, or third time speaking to the issue.

This data can track who speaks most often at Council, how long they speak, and what issues they speak to.

On the Internet, Council could be streamed with live voting results provided on the same webpage. You want to know how Council votes on a decision but don't have access to cable or the Internet? You can sign up for mobile text message alerts for every vote, or just the vote you're most interested in.

The possibilities with Open Data are endless and cost-effective.

Ryan McGreal offered up a great idea last year on RTH:

One Idea to Get Started

My own contribution to such an ecology of open government applications must necessarily be modest, not only because of the nature of open source development but also because there are a lot of programmers out there who are a lot smarter than me. :) Nevertheless, here's one obvious idea that shouldn't be hard to implement: a live HSR bus map.

The city is purchasing new GPS systems for all its buses and will have them installed by the end of the year. If the city provides real-time GPS data for its bus fleet in a web-based API, someone can create a Google Maps mashup that places the buses on the map in their actual current position and lets users click on a bus to see its identity, route and schedule.

Again, the city could hire a consultant to produce such a tool. It would probably end up costing a lot of money, not working very well and having extremely limited responsiveness to the feedback of the user base.

Why pay for second-rate software when the city can encourage its own citizens and residents to create and improve a similar application simply out of a joy for creation, sharing and participation in the public weal?

Imagine our City Council making its first Act of the new term the implementation of an Open Data policy.

Let's stop imagining and make it happen. December 1 is only a month away.

This article was first published on Joey Coleman's website.

Joey Coleman covers Hamilton Civic Affairs.

Read more of his work at The Public Record, or follow him on Twitter @JoeyColeman.

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted October 29, 2010 at 09:00:13

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Comment edited by turbo on 2010-10-29 08:02:37

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By paulhart (registered) | Posted October 29, 2010 at 09:33:13

Who do you need to get buy-in from within the city? Do you "aim high" and get council to force it through, or do you start at the bottom and work up to council?

What's the value proposition for each group you're selling the idea to? How do you assuage the fears (real or imagined) that some may have to making such information more freely available?

With open, near-instant access comes accountability, and that could be your biggest hurdle. Then again, applying some reality to the city we live in might be very interesting too! :)

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 29, 2010 at 10:02:56

All good questions, paulhart. I took a stab at answering some of them in an article last year.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2010-10-29 09:10:21

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By MattM (registered) | Posted October 29, 2010 at 12:24:47

Unless some don't know regarding the HSR thing, Google implemented something similar. If you use Google Maps or Google Earth and zoom in pretty close you'll see all the bus stop locations for every HSR route in the city. If you click the stop, you get all the next bus times at that stop in whatever direction, for each route serving it. The information is not real-time, per se. It is pulled from the HSR's schedule information, but the buses use their GPS system to tell the driver how fast or slow they should drive to stay on schedule. So, barring any inconveniences, the HSR buses religiously follow the schedule, making the Google stops in relative real-time.

Google also implemented a similar system for GO Transit and the TTC. It doesn't pull real-time GPS information in those cases either, but I'm pretty sure both systems also use GPS to keep the buses on-time, so it's fairly accurate. You can also do trip planning which will give you driving/transit/walking directions as necessary. It's really nifty and a lot more user friendly than the HSR's trip planner.

Comment edited by MattM on 2010-10-29 11:26:04

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By Arcadia (anonymous) | Posted October 29, 2010 at 13:42:11

turbo: just because you're not interested in this idea doesn't mean others aren't. You sound like a megalomaniac, demanding every article suit your precious sensitivities.

Anyway, I'm interested but clearly a cultural change is needed, as Ryan points out in his article. The city, like most organizations, sees no benefit from sharing information, and perhaps that's because ideas for change often seem high on techno-jargon and low on useful ideas. I think this will only take place if the city manager determines it's a priority and allocates resources towards it. Perhaps the clerk's office could be amalgamated into an office of information management, with a much larger mandate than the current 'information services', which looks like one of those understaffed outfits that mostly keeps the intranet running and manages electronic records. Or they implement a variety of institution-centric projects like http://map.hamilton.ca/.

Without that change you're left with very little. For instance, your idea of tracking the voting records. Maybe with a bit of creativity you'd be able to link it to the meeting minutes. However, as it stands these minutes tell you almost nothing about a meeting. In this respect Don McLean accomplishes what an entire city department should be doing - recording minutes and votes, transcribing important sessions, publishing the results. This isn't the savvy techno future you're describing, but it seems to me to be the essence of 'open data'. It's crazy the city doesn't do this itself. Apparently councillors are always asking Don what they said about a certain vote, because no one else is keeping track. The Clerk's purpose is administrative, meant to satisfy institutional requirements of 'accountability' and legal requirements, but it is functionally useless for anyone else. And as long as we're left to rely on citizen heroes to do this stuff I'm worried these ideas are nonstarters. You mention streaming meetings; that would be amazing. I emailed the Clerk and they told me they were 'looking into it but have no specific date'. ie it's never going to happen.

On the upside, I really think the city could be persuaded to see the value of this, but that value needs to be described in a way that the city benefits from it as well as residents.

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By adrian (registered) | Posted October 29, 2010 at 14:12:11

According to Wikipedia, "worldwide IT services revenue totaled $763 billion in 2009". Why are billions spent on information technology? Because information is valuable. Why is it valuable? Because it assists with creating knowledge and making decisions. If we can produce something of great value, without great expense, that assists with creating knowledge and making decisions at the level of local government, why wouldn't we?

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted October 29, 2010 at 19:36:17

Agreed 763 billion times over, Adrian.

We need to open up policy data to people, not just the conclusions and recommendations of city managers. We need to stop pretending that gatekeepers charging for access to knowledge are really doing the public a service.

The first step to better decision making is more eyes pouring over the data. Freedom of Information is about more than being able to submit a form, pay a charge, and wait indefinitely.

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By allantaylor97 (registered) | Posted October 29, 2010 at 22:32:26

Actually I looked at google to get directions to Ron Joyce for tomorrow. It gave me the wrong bus times I realized when I looked up the schedule on the HSR site. As far as I can tell the times are not real time,they are taken off the HSR sched. The problem might be that they used the wrong day as Saturday service has different times Always go to the source. 3rd party info isn't reliable. I would have been late it I trusted google

Comment edited by turbo on 2010-10-29 21:40:13

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By MAB (registered) | Posted October 30, 2010 at 15:40:27

Yep, saw the advertisement on Facebook to come one down from 11 a.m.- 9 p.m.

Figured oh "its an open house affair where the public can come and discuss and find out more about what this group is trying to do to improve our political process.

Got there about an hour after started. The group were engaged in a circle giving their criterion on how Bob the new mayor handled the media. I personally think he handled them just fine!!

Did I get anything from this meeting? No. My questions were regarded as inconsequential!!

The attitude was elitism. I personally felt very excluded from this important catalyst for change in our city.

I am for this city to have open accessibility , transparency and accountiblilty.

Welcoming people to learn about this is much needed in our community.. Making a subcultural elite group mmmmm is well boring - not my cup of tea.

Thanks for the invite I hope people didnt show up after you left at 1 - yet advertised until 9 p.m.

I did come away with one positive thing, something I strive to always look for in whatever and wherever I go.

One gentlemen spoke, after he was rudely cut off, about what I thought this meeting was supposed to be all about, "the barriers our current election process has in reaching out to the public in an effort too engage them in the political process and ensure and implement computer technology that will help to make politians accountable and transparent.. This is the site he recommended.. enjoy!

Google: myplanet open government..

Comment edited by MAB on 2010-10-30 14:57:44

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By JoeyColeman (registered) - website | Posted October 30, 2010 at 17:26:57

The meeting went very well. I did make the mistake of putting too much time on the Facebook event.

In terms of progress, we made plenty. There are more people involved in the push to have Open Government, Open Data in Hamilton.

While this comment is anonymous, I can infer from the statement "after he was rudely cut off" and the late arrival that the disconnect here is that you felt this meeting was a forum to bring up your theories about the electoral counting at City Hall.

When some of your statements about a conspiracy among the incumbents were proven wrong, you became frustrated with the discussion.

Every effort was made to find a method of involving you, but you choose not to discuss the topic at hand.

Having different goals than you does not make a group of people "elitist."

Here's the link you referred to, it's a good read for sure: Ontario Municipalities On Open Government: “Ah, yes, the thing about that is...”

http://www.myplanetdigital.com/digital_s...

Comment edited by JoeyColeman on 2010-10-30 16:28:14

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By MAB (registered) | Posted October 30, 2010 at 20:51:43

First and foremost. The advertisment for this meeting, did not give real specifics what it entailed. I envisioned a display of information, particuarily when it was scheduled from what 11 - 9 p.m. In that forum a display of what Google Earth, Cello GPS looked like.. to inform people of the possiblilties of the technology avail to them on the internet to find information, to correlate information to better understand the elections.

When I entered the circle, it took me a minute or two to be brought up too snuff what you all were talking about. The essence of the conversation had nothing to do with why I was there. Having a keen interest in our Hamilton, I engaged politely in such a conversation.

Bottom line.. I am a Hamiltonian... through and through..I was raised as a daughter of the Hammer. I came there to learn. I was dissappointed but not discourgaged.

Comment edited by MAB on 2010-10-30 20:04:47

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By MAB (registered) | Posted November 05, 2010 at 09:20:26

The concept of Open Data is a great idea. Particuarily when the new advanced polling stations need to be questioned. Also were they advantagous in including more people in the election process. From the increase of voter turn out I don t think so. They worked in the favour of the incumbents., whom I still need to find an answer if in fact they got to choose where these advanced polls were placed.. in area that is high in their own voter support.. Ideally, everyone voting at the same time, on the date of the elections, is the goal. Computer technology will give us this. The advanced polls subscribed to the convienience of voters, doing their civic duty and most voted on familiarity.. with little care what they just voted on for their area. or the greater hamilton for that fact.. All but two wards voted for aerotropolis. Did the voters supporting those in favour of aerotropolis by voting in the same old same old realize what they voted for?? Increased taxes etc on a speculative process...

Avanced polls are not helping improve our political process, it is just making it uglier than it already is.

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