Open City

The Unpredictable Benefits of Open Source Data

By Ryan Danks
Published December 01, 2010

Amidst the sensational headlines from the latest WikiLeaks release, I came across this Toronto Star article about a small business owner who is using a free web app created using Toronto's Open Source Data as value-added service to his customers.

The beverage-and-bagel joint Mowat opened about five months ago features a wall-mounted screen displaying real-time information on the arrival times of the next four to six 506 Carleton streetcars, which stop just outside the door on Gerrard.

That means his caffeine-craving patrons, many of whom he greets by name, know whether they have time to wait for a special-order latte or need to grab a quick cup from the self-serve brew station instead.

This is a perfect example of how opening up data with the standardized format and API benefits not just the nerds who enjoy building and sharing apps, but also the general public who now have a reliable, easy to use source of information they can access while sipping on their morning coffee.

To paraphrase a line from the Where Is My Street Car FAQ:

That's the beauty of the open source model: One person has an itch to scratch, everyone benefits.

This story also illustrates another benefit of open data, the fact that this was done without the City of Toronto having to spend a dime. The article states that the TTC is planning to roll out a similar feature next year; but frankly, I don't see the need for it.

By maintaining a useful framework, the TTC allows anyone with internet access the opportunity to "scratch an itch". Any useful tool that comes from it is one less tool they need to create (if they were even planning on creating it at all), freeing up resources for other higher priority tasks, while making the service better for its customers.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of open source is its unpredictability. Did Toronto's open data architects foresee someone making a real-time streetcar location map from their data? Perhaps. Did they expect a local businessman to use it as a customer perk in his coffee shop? Not likely.

Of all the useful tools I imagine will be created, what excites me more about an open data city is all the tools I haven't imagined.

So kudos to the creators of Where Is My Street Car and everyone else who played a role in making it possible, and I look forward to the day when developers here in Hamilton can start creating and sharing as well.

I can't wait to see what we create.

Ryan Danks is a Project Engineer for a wind engineering consulting company. After living in Stoney Creek for many years he and his fiancée are now enjoying all Ward 2 has to offer.

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By notnerdy (anonymous) | Posted December 01, 2010 at 14:08:47

It's really too bad that Hamiltonians for the most part elected politicians, who didn't even understand the Open Source Data question posed to them by RTH during the election.

Unfortunately, that can't bode well for Open Source in Hamilton.

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By mikeyj (registered) | Posted December 01, 2010 at 14:57:59

I'm sure Rob Ford is about to launch a Turboesque crusade to stop Toronto's Data from being manipulated by the latte drinking elite.

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By xham (anonymous) | Posted December 01, 2010 at 19:49:36

I find Google is much better for HSR route planning than the tool on the City of Hamilton's website. The city is always forcing me to pick from a list of addresses even when I've specifically tried to use their format and it often gives strange itineraries that make no sense.

If we could get something like Where's my Streetcar incorporating actual GPS data from the buses instead of the written schedules that would be great.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted December 01, 2010 at 20:41:05

xham, I couldn't agree more. The HSR's trip planning tool (last time I used it anyways) was fairly useless. Google does a much better job. And now that google has done a much better job, maybe the city can repurpose the resources it was dedicating to its trip planner to work on open source data. ;-)

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