Special Report: Open Public Data

Open Public Data Helps us Make Better Decisions

Hamiltonians may be thinking of what ails our city and how we can fix it. A good start would be to access quantifiable data to use as a measurement.

By Tyler Collins
Published May 06, 2014

In 2011 the City of Hamilton announced that they would be starting an Open Data project, and last year released the first batch of data.

For those not familiar with Open Data, it is a movement that seeks to make information available to anyone, free of cost, and not restricted by copyright. The datasets can include just about anything, come in many forms and be used for many purposes.

Once someone obtains Open Data, they may use it for whatever purposes they like, and not have to worry about paying licensing fees. The Open Data Institute has a guide explaining open data in more detail.

The Open Institute is based in Nairobi and aims to engage people from all walks of life with their project and derive from data, solutions to poverty; but also to "Support and promote listening and responsive governments, particularly in Africa."

Open Data in Canada

While Canada may face different challenges than Kenya and its neighbours, Open Data can give us insight into our living conditions and also promote transparency within our institutions.

The federal government has an Open Data website offering data on our country that has been arranged and packaged for quick downloading and ease of use.

Provinces and municipalities have also released varying amounts of Open Data. The data has long been used by each level of government, but in the past was only used internally.

When looking through the datasets, it soon becomes apparent that there is a lack of consistency. What Edmonton makes available may not be the same as what is made public by Toronto or Montreal.

Open Data in Hamilton

However, our cities differ by size, with different geographies and different issues to address. With this in mind, Hamiltonians may be thinking of what ails our city and how we can fix it. A good start would be to access quantifiable data to use as a measurement.

So far the city has given us data on roads, schools, planning units and waterfalls among other things. The data is available primarily as KML and shape files, meaning there is a spatial component to it.

Surely, many people could benefit from this data, but are unaware of how to use it or unaware of what they can learn from it.

Uses of Open Data in Hamilton

I have a background in Geographic Information Systems and know how to display Hamilton's Open Data. I started playing around with the different sets and made some maps that might say something about Hamilton.

By manipulating the data on the city's park lands, I was able to show how far a spot is from the nearest park in the form of a heat map.

Heat map: distance from nearest park
Heat map: distance from nearest park

When looking at a standard map, many people not familiar with Hamilton may not appreciate just how much of a geographical division the escarpment is. With the city's data, we can belabour the escarpment's presence.

Geographical division: Niagara Escarpment
Geographical division: Niagara Escarpment

Using 2011 Census data, I made a population map, with the darker areas indicating a higher population density. I then overlaid parks and bike paths (in pink). By looking at this, maybe we can an idea of where in the city there is good or bad access for cyclists.

Population density, parks and bike paths map
Population density, parks and bike paths map

Flooding is a concern of some residents and by using the rivers dataset we can see what areas could be threatened. In this map, the rivers in Dundas were given a 50 metre buffer and the buildings data was overlaid to show what could be affected by such flooding.

Dundas rivers: potential flooding risk areas
Dundas rivers: potential flooding risk areas

Aside from imaging, the data can be used to derive statistics. Green space is not hard to find in rural areas, but can be more of a welcome sight in busier areas. Using the urban boundary, wards and park lands sets, I made this chart showing how much of each ward, within the urban boundary, consists of park land.

Park Land Percentage by Ward (Within Urban Boundary)
Ward Area (sq. km) Park Land (sq. km) % of Park Land
* Ward 14 is entirely outside the urban boundary.
1 15.1 2.5 16.3
2 6.6 0.9 12.9
3 14.4 0.9 6.2
4 16.5 1.0 6.3
5 20.8 5.8 28.2
6 16.0 1.5 9.7
7 17.4 0.9 5.3
8 17.4 0.9 5.3
9 15.1 1.2 7.7
10 12.3 0.5 4.2
11 29.7 0.6 1.9
12 26.4 0.7 2.7
13 12.1 0.7 5.6
14* 0.0 0.0 0.0
15 11.5 0.6 4.9

Open Data can be Invaluable

These examples were relatively easy to make. For those concerned with particular issues, Open Data can be invaluable.

It could be used to determine what parts of the city would be best or least served by light rail transit. The openings and closing of schools across the city might seem sensible or ridiculous when looked at in a new light.

Perhaps there is data not available, that you think the city should make public. Open Data gives us access to information that can help us improve our communities along with the government.

People often say the city should follow their idea. Now we can back our ideas up with data. It is an election year, so the right people just may listen.

Tyler Collins moved to Hamilton in 2011. He lives in the West End and works downtown.

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By Mal (anonymous) | Posted May 06, 2014 at 08:41:57

I'm fully in support of open data and local initiatives like Open Hamilton but I find the municipality's initial release (40+ sets) to be somewhat underwhelming. GIS data (400+ sets) has been available through map.hamilton.ca for years (though admittedly data licensing assigned IP rights to the City of Hamilton and various third parties).


map.hamilton.ca/static/pdfs/GIS_Services_Brochure.pdf

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By Kevo (registered) | Posted May 06, 2014 at 18:14:44 in reply to Comment 101013

Data licensing is usually the biggest hook - things like parcels (property lines) are owned by Teranet, assessment information by MPAC, postal codes by Canada Post, plus there are sensitive datasets of things like environmental or policy areas that people are rightly/wrongly against releasing.

Spatial data is usually one of the first things released by governments because the people who've worked with GIS have always had to share data with each and usually know it's quality and source information, whereas Someone in finance might not be used to sharing the balance sheet of the government outside of a council chamber or Commons. It's probably why GeoBase/GeoGratis was years ahead of the rest of the federal government and why NRCan and USGS feed such massive amounts of data into their respective open data portals.

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By nitpickin' (anonymous) | Posted May 06, 2014 at 22:13:51

Nitpicking here but your map of flooding in Dundas can't be taken seriously as it lacks any topography on it. For example, the flooding in the ravine area near the southern portion of the map (Robinhood Drive, Little John, etc) are at the top of a hill with a fairly steep drop down to the bottom of the ravine where the stream runs. I'd also have a very hard time believing that the floodplain for that stream is 50 feet, seeing as the stream is maybe 3 feet deep at the deepest points and is about 5 feet wide, maybe 10.

Dundas also has a fairly large grade to it (the western part of Dundas is much higher than downtown, or the eastern side out near Cootes, with most streams running at the bottom of ravines or at a lower height than the surrounding homes.

Just sayin'.

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By mrgrande (registered) | Posted May 07, 2014 at 12:49:12

Hi Tyler, thanks for this! I look at the current slate of open data with a bit of a defeatist attitude, I'm sad to say. All I've done with it are map transit information.

Are you involved with Open Hamilton at all? We're currently working with the City on real time transit data, and hope to have it available in the coming months.

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