Open government means opportunities for business.

If you’ve heard rumblings of an “open government” movement at city hall, chances are you’ve dismissed it as just another political fad. But the phrase refers to more than just a Utopian fantasy: it involves hard and fast data that can make or break a business, and placing it at the fingertips of anyone.

Consider two companies that, on the surface, appear identical: Kmart and Wal-Mart. Both are retailers, and both sell to a similar demographic. But scratch deeper and a critical distinction emerges. While Kmart saw its core competency as retailing and simply funnelling as much product to consumers as possible, Wal-Mart understands that data is its most important resource. The retail giant constantly processes data to assess selling opportunities and drive efficiencies. This difference helps explain how one grew to become a global giant while the other filed for bankruptcy protection.

Historically, governments have been like Kmart: service-delivery institutions simply pumping product out to the public. But that is starting to change. Governments are waking up to the fact that data – the quantitative information about their services and the communities they serve – is not simply a byproduct of operations but a strategic asset as valuable, if not more so, as a highway or road. While reliable government data helps streamline internal operations, it also presents strong opportunities for productivity gains and new service offerings within the business sector. 

The City of Vancouver is quietly leading the charge by making all its data openly available to the public. As the Open Motion passed by council in 2009 states, the goal is to “freely share with citizens, businesses and other jurisdictions the greatest amount of data possible while respecting privacy and security concerns.”

At data.vancouver.ca, the City of Vancouver is sharing with citizens and businesses the data their tax dollars paid to collect. Toronto, Edmonton, Ottawa and Nanaimo subsequently launched similar sites, and provinces as well as the federal government are contemplating like-minded initiatives. 

Businesses have been analyzing government data for decades, to help refine property valuations or decide where to open a new office or store. Open data reduces the transaction costs of getting this and other types of information. No more letters, phone calls or special requests; just visit the website and download what you need. Bing Thom Architects, for example, recently used public data about Vancouver’s shorelines to examine the impact of a rising sea level on development in the city. No permission or requests were ever sought; they just took what they needed.

Open data also means new business opportunities by adding value to government data. In Vancouver, for example, two local web developers, Luke Closs and Kevin Jones, launched Vantrash, a website that digitizes the garbage schedule and sends users an email the day before their garbage day. It’s a useful service in a city where garbage day shifts every month.

To grasp the full potential of open government, businesses should look at mature industries that have leveraged open data for decades. In the U.S., services related to weather information are estimated to be worth $1.5 billion to $2 billion a year. Weather data is so ubiquitous we forget about it, but this industry of value-added service, consulting, visualizing and reporting is built on a platform of open data: the weather data regularly and freely published by government. 

Today we are just beginning to understand the possibilities. But by making all sorts of new data public – like the location of construction sites, zoning changes, environmental assessments and water tests – governments can create huge opportunities for individuals and businesses to make this data meaningful, valuable and profitable. It’s an effort that, if governments implement and business make use of, could make B.C.’s economy more vibrant, competitive and innovative.