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Vancouver moves to “open source” government

May 15th, 2009 · 9 Comments

I had a story in the Globe this morning about the Vision Vancouver council’s move to promoting open-source government, which is already generating quite a buzz in certain nerdy info-tech circles to judge by my Google alerts. Ironically, the Globe had a glitch that prevented several stories in the B.C. edition from getting posted to the website, so here is a copyof the story that was in the paper.

The visible city: Will public data end up online?

Vancouver’s technologically hip new council wants you to be able to see the city naked – data-wise, that is.

It is working on a plan that would throw open the doors to as much city information and statistics as possible, putting it online in a form that people can pick up and use in their own computer programs.

The ideas is that everyone from programmers to curious citizens could use city data to do anything from tracking where your garbage-truck driver on his route to mapping where the worst landlords’ buildings are.

The notion – being pioneered in cities like Toronto, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco – is that the more information people have, the more cities can tap into the collective energy of their residents to develop new applications for the data or just to get more involved in the way the city works.

“The city collects and records a phenomenal amount of data. If we want the city to run well, people need access to it,” said Vision Vancouver Councillor Andrea Reimer, who is working on an initiative that would radically alter the course of the city’s information-technology department to promote what is called “open-source government”.

“The interest will become not so much protecting information but in getting it out there so it can be used,” Ms. Reimer said.

Washington put on a competition last fall called Apps for Democracy where it released city statistics and challenged amateur and professional programmers to come up with interesting ways to use them. People developed programs that matched up the city’s crime statistics to areas around city bars (located through liquor-licence data) and maps, so that party-goers could check whether a particular area around a bar was a likely crime spot.

Toronto is installing GPS trackers in subway cars and trams, and eventually will post their data, and anyone can develop a system that lets the public track the vehicles on a map. San Francisco is allowing Google to blend city statistics with its online maps.

To bring that kind of experimentation to Vancouver, Ms. Reimer and others have been developing a motion to set out the goal that “the City of Vancouver will freely share with citizens, businesses and other jurisdictions the greatest amount of data possible while respecting privacy and security concerns.”

Vancouver already provides a considerable amount of data on its own VanMaps system, which allows viewers to mouse over maps and get information on a variety of topics from the traffic volume on major streets to the location of social housing. But those figures aren’t in a form that can be lifted off the system to be used by someone who might want to create another use.

The council motion, to come later this month, will also ask staff to consider possibilities for using open-source software, which is software developed collectively, rather than a privately licensed product such as Microsoft’s.

The move to liberate government records is a trend was welcomed by the provincial organization that monitors the state of information more closely than any other, the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association.

“There is more and more information available in computer files, but the trend, unfortunately, so far has been that increasingly that information is restricted,” said Richard Rosenberg, a computer-science professor who is the association’s president. He started working with computers in the 1960s, and there was hope that computers would be a great tool for democracy.

Instead, governments have become more wary about releasing information, especially in B.C.

“There’s this underlying feeling from bureaucrats and politicians that releasing information would come back to haunt them.”

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