Special Report: Open Public Data

Vancouver Establishes Open Data Catalogue

Congratulations to Vancouver for taking the first steps into a new pattern of cooperation and information sharing with its citizens.

By Ryan McGreal
Published September 17, 2009

The City of Vancouver has raised the bar for transparency and accessibility with a new Open Data Catalogue that provides public city data in a variety of human- and machine-readable data formats.

Right now, the catalogue features mainly geographic data - locations of schools, parks, drinking fountains, fire halls, libraries and so on - and the data formats reflect this, featuring GPS coordinates and easy integration with Google Maps.

This is clearly still in an early stage, but the real win is in the permissive licence under which the city has released the data:

The City of Vancouver (City) now grants you a world-wide, royalty-free, non-exclusive licence to use, modify, and distribute the datasets in all current and future media and formats for any lawful purpose. You now acknowledge that this licence does not give you a copyright or other proprietary interest in the datasets. If you distribute or provide access to these datasets to any other person, whether in original or modified form, you agree to include a copy of, or this Uniform Resource Locator (URL) for, these Terms of Use and to ensure they agree to and are bound by them but without introducing any further restrictions of any kind. [emphasis added]

This is broadly the right approach: defining data as public unless otherwise required for legal reasons, and asserting the right of citizens to use, modify, combine and distribute that data in a way that encourages further openness and sharing.

But the city isn't just dumping out the data and wiping its hands. It also maintains an open wiki in which citizens can collaborate, share methods and best practices, and organize events, like the First Vancouver Open Data Hackathon taking place today.

That is, the city is helping to provide a platform in which citizens can use public data to build added value.

Many cities are now starting to think about ways to leverage data networks creatively, but Vancouver, pushed by a strong campaign from active citizens, may be the first in Canada to commit so explicitly and comprehensively to sharing "the greatest amount of public data possible" using open data standards, open source software and public collaboration.

The city has even committed that "data upplied to the City by third parties (developers, contractors, consultants) are unlicensed, in a prevailing open standard format, and not copyrighted except if otherwise prevented by legal considerations".

This is especially important, since cities contract much of their analysis to third party contractors, who usually end up possessing the data and only providing summary reports to staff and council.

Congratulations to Vancouver for taking the first steps into a new pattern of cooperation and information sharing with its citizens. The cultural shift will be significant but the end result will be a more open, more responsive government that better serves its citizens.

The writing is on the wall for cities that try to cling to old, closed, proprietary ways of doing business. Cities like Hamilton can commit early to openness and get a lead, or we can hold back until we're finally dragged into the light after everyone else has already gone.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By jason (registered) | Posted September 17, 2009 at 15:17:39

Council probably needs to hold an in-camera meeting to discuss this idea.

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By Tammany (anonymous) | Posted September 17, 2009 at 16:03:48

Something tells me that Council is invoking the in camera provisions of the Municipal Act in less than the best of faith.

Under s. 239

(2) A meeting or part of a meeting may be closed to the public if the subject matter being considered is,

a) the security of the property of the municipality or local board.
b) personal matters about an identifiable individual, including municipal or board employees.
c) a proposed or pending acquisition or disposition of land by the municipality or local board.
d) labour relations or employee negotiations.
e) litigation or potential litigation, including matters before administrative tribunals, affecting the municipality or local board.
f) advice that is subject to solicitor-client privilege, including communications necessary for the purpose.
g) a matter in respect of which a council, board, committee or other body may hold a closed meeting under another Act.

(3) A meeting shall be closed to the public if the subject matter relates to the consideration of a request under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, if the council, board or other body is the head of an institution for the purposes of that act.

Obviously, in a real democracy, elected representatives would refrain from invoking in camera privilege in all but the most sensitive of matters.

Why was the discussion of the Connaught in camera? Does it fit into any of the above categories? (and don't tell me it's just because they had the city solicitor there - that's an abuse of the solicitor client relationship)

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted September 17, 2009 at 16:22:24

Tammany: Since are you an expert in law, it would seem fitting that you could have the opportunity to ask these questions in front of council. I do not know if that is actually feasible but then it is something that could be done,say at a public forum in the next municipal election?

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By Tammany (anonymous) | Posted September 17, 2009 at 16:28:07

Any investigation can be requested under section 239.1 of the Act. For professional reasons, I will not make the request. But I invite anyone who is interested in doing so to consider the possibility.

I may of course be wrong on the question of whether the session really was improperly closed. I haven't researched deeply and I don't really practice municipal law as such, but something stinks about the whole thing ...

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted September 17, 2009 at 16:33:43

Tammany: I agree with you that something smells. Would that section you are quoting under the municipal code?

Wouldn't be funny if just some layman could figure this out and be bold enough to ask the questions necessary?

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By Tammany (anonymous) | Posted September 17, 2009 at 16:39:14

From the Municipal Act:


239.1 A person may request that an investigation of whether a municipality or local board has complied with section 239 or a procedure by-law under subsection 238 (2) in respect of a meeting or part of a meeting that was closed to the public be undertaken,

(a) by an investigator referred to in subsection 239.2 (1); or

(b) by the Ombudsman appointed under the Ombudsman Act, if the municipality has not appointed an investigator referred to in subsection 239.2 (1). 2006, c. 32, Sched. A, s. 104.

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By Curious (anonymous) | Posted September 17, 2009 at 16:52:52

Well said Tammany; and I just wonder if we aren't running a kind of Tammany Hall here in this city; maybe the streets of new york have nothing on the streets of hamilton!

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By Tammany (anonymous) | Posted September 17, 2009 at 16:56:15

I'm glad someone finally picked up on the reference in my screen name ;)

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[ - ]

By Curious 2 (anonymous) | Posted September 20, 2009 at 00:19:03

Is it true that the term "Tammany Hall" is now used to refer to a corrupt system of buying or controlling votes?

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