Congratulations to the City of Vancouver under Mayor Gregor Robertson, 2011's Most Innovative Organization in B.C.
Governments aren’t known for thinking outside the box, and an administration that champions bike lanes and backyard chickens isn’t likely to win nods of approval when business types gather around a boardroom table. So it’s particularly notable that the City of Vancouver was a hands-down favourite among this year’s panel of experts as one of the province’s leading innovators.
While the ultimate utility of community gardens might be open to debate, our experts were unanimous in their view that the city’s open-data initiative – which aims to make the city’s vast trove of data publicly available online – is a true breakthrough. As one panellist noted, “I have never seen a municipality open to new ideas in my life. When was the last time any level of government said, Here are our books; fill your boots?”
The city’s initiative was officially launched in May 2009, when council passed a resolution to, among other things, “freely share with citizens, businesses and other jurisdictions the greatest amount of data possible.” In principle, this is a laudable goal, but the noble sentiment caused hardly a ripple in the local media. In practice, it turns the entire operation of city hall on its head, and proponents are predicting similar disruptions in the local business community.
Making all the data the city collects public isn’t just a matter of collecting a bunch of computer files and dumping them onto a publicly accessible server. Andrea Reimer, the city councillor who introduced the open data motion, explains that the first challenge is simply finding the data. “Nobody knew where all the data was!” she exclaims. Or rather, everybody knew where their little piece of data was, but there was no comprehensive map of the city’s entire collection of information. And once the data was catalogued and mapped, simply dumping it onto a common server would be useless, since it would be outdated almost instantly. It would have to be collected and saved in an updatable online database.
But the biggest challenge wasn’t technical; it was cultural. The initiative doesn’t just involve a handful of techies toiling in the bowels of city hall, but depends on every one of the city’s 9,000 employees buying into the notion of constantly feeding the data they collect into this common database.
The initiative was given an initial budget of $130,000, and the first tangible result appeared within months – lightning speed for a government. In September 2009 the city published an online catalogue with 20 sets of data open to the public at data.vancouver.ca. The initial files listed basic information, such as locations of schools, parks and drinking fountains. Today the catalogue has grown to 125 data sets, including, for example, a list of all 53,009 current business licences in the city, complete with names, addresses and numbers of employees.
While commercial applications have yet to be tested, programmers Kevin Jones and Luke Closs, a couple of early adopters, set out to demonstrate the possibilities with a by-donation web application at vantrash.ca that draws on city data to remind users of garbage-collection dates in their neighbourhood.
More important than the new way of doing business at city hall is the potential it opens up for innovation in the business world. One enthusiastic advocate is Andrew Yan, urban planner at Bing Thom Architects, who with his colleagues is drawing on city data for a report they’re preparing on the impact of rising sea levels.
Freely available data has an immediate impact on the bottom line for firms like his in reducing what Yan calls the “frictional cost” involved with getting information from the city: all the time involved with phone calls and emails and actually going to city hall to physically retrieve information.
But more importantly, says Yan, freely available data fosters a more innovative culture in the business community. “When you release this stuff, you don’t know where it’s going to go, which is the exciting economic element,” he says. “It opens up this kind of ability where ideas can just bump up against each other and come up with the next big idea, the next big tool.”