A case study: Why open data is cool | Opensource.com

A case study: Why open data is cool

Posted 29 Jul 2011 by 

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A case study for municipal open data.

The heat is scorching! Residents across Ontario, Quebec and parts of the US are trying to stay cool. Many seek out public swimming pools and splash-pads, and turn to their municipalities for information. Others, like the Canadian 'hacktivists' Joey Coleman of OpenHamilton and yours truly of OpenHalton seek out ways to make that information more accessible.

Hamilton 's Dowsing and Milton Splash are two of the most recent examples of what is possible with open data. They represent a real-life case study of how open data can help keep us cooler, while also helping cities provide a better service at a lower cost.

This is how:

BETTER SERVICE, LOWER COST: Many municipalities – like the town of Milton – provide great-looking printed community maps with swimming pool & spray pad information, and various community services guides. The challenge with those are production and printing costs, which pose a barrier to keeping the information current. For instance, the Milton map is missing some of the newer facilities (like the 2 splash pads in newer areas of Milton).

The solution: post the source data for the map – i.e. a machine-readable list of facilities with geographic coordinates. No fancy formatting, no map production, or printing, or distribution required – save our taxpayer 's dollars. Just publish the raw, most up-to-date data online, the data that already exists in town 's information systems. To Milton 's credit, town staff produced a Beat the Heat poster with an updated list of facilities, which even included an advisory on one of the spray pads closed for repairs. The obvious challenge: what happens when repairs are completed, but the flyer is still in circulation? Again, open data to the rescue.

Milton splash

ONE SOURCE: With so many sources of information (maps, guides, flyers, website pages), open data can become one definitive source of data. OpenHamilton's Dowsing does just that by pulling partial data for water facilities from at least 4 sources into one dataset. OpenHalton's Milton Splash similarly integrates information from 3 printed publications into a single dataset. One place, one definitive source of data is the recipe for better accuracy and government efficiency: cities with open data catalogues discover that not only citizens, but also city staff use those catalogues as the primary source of data.

When implemented correctly, i.e. with workflows and processes to keep the data current, cities can realize significant savings by having just one place to update. Many open data catalogues, such as Microsoft 's open source OGDI or commercial Socrata provide open standard Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to the data. This creates a cascading effect, with open data API 's driving many different uses.

MANY USES: Even without "fancy" APIs or "catalogues" any municipality can realize the benefits of open data. All it takes is data, a website and a license (a license outlines the terms of use / agreement for how the data should be used; for more info on the topic of licenses see this recent article by David Eaves on the state of open data licenses in Canada).

Once the data is online in a machine-readable format, it can literally "turn on" any number of web pages, digital maps, visualizations, online reports, web and mobile applications, and even ordinary spreadsheets like Excel, accessible for those without programming skills. That is Government as a Platform: the vision popularized by Tim O 'Reilly. For water facilities all the cities need to do is provide the names, coordinates, hours & status (advisories, etc.) as a download. For Milton I used OGDI allowing me to make town's data accessible as an html table, or a file download (CSV, etc), a map or KML download (common mapping format), or as an XML oData feed or JSON API to power any number of interactive maps and apps just like Milton Splash. Powerful open source frameworks like the 'jquery-ui-map' by Johan Säll Larsson turn developing an interactive map into an week-end project. 

Dowsing and Milton Splash are just small examples of what can be accomplished with open data. Both are relatively simple apps, but can provide a useful service to Hamilton and Milton residents searching for a pool or a spray pad nearby. As the heat wave breaks records, one couldn 't ask for a better way to showcase the value of open data.

This article was first published at OpenHalton.ca and republished with the authors permission.

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Open Source Strategy Lead at Microsoft Canada a.k.a. "Head of Open Sourcery", technology evangelist, web architect & consultant. Responsible for open data & open government initiatives across Canada. An avid Open Data "hacktivist", founder of OpenHalton.ca: a citizen-led Open Gov initiative in the Halton Region. Prior to Microsoft, worked as a Strategic Marketing Manager in the Open Source Solutions group at UNISYS Corporation.

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