The City of Montreal is a vault of important and fascinating information – maps, stats, schedules, and regulations that enable us to understand and navigate the urban landscape. Yet most of it is buried somewhere in a maze of a website, often difficult to extract from bulky PDF documents.
Montréal Ouvert is working to convince the city to crack open that stronghold and let citizens appropriate the City’s data in creative ways. They envision that tech-savvy people could tap into this data to create tools like interactive websites, social media, and iPhone applications, which would allow citizens to engage with the city in a completely new way.
The organisation’s co-founder, Jonathan Brun, gives the example of an application that would allow people to pinpoint nearby skating rinks, establish the ice conditions using information that is currently public city’s website, and then communicate with other users to strike up a hockey match.
But to qualify as Open Data, information must be:
1. Accessible and formatted in such a way that it can be read and manipulated by a computer program (databases and tables are good; static PDFs are not);
2. Licensed in a way that allows citizens and businesses to use it;
3. Centralized in a permanent location.
Brun estimates that Montreal is starting from zero on all three counts. Although a lot of information is available on the web, it is often in hard-to-parse PDF format, spread out between dozens of borough and department sites, and copyrighted to prevent it from being used.
“The government does have an obligation to divulge this data but we want to make them do it proactively instead of retroactively,” Brun says. He suggests that an Open Data policy could save the city money by reducing the amount of man-hours spent answering Access to Information requests.
“We see ourselves as a bridge builder,” Brun says, opening a line of communication between the City and local web-developers. Although the municipal entities they have met with, including Montréal 2025, have been enthusiastic about the proposal, Brun says there are insecurities about “losing control” of the information, and fears that data could be used to mount criticism about the City.
Yet a recent paper by Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute, entitled Open Data, Open City, concluded that an Open Data policy is mutually beneficial to citizens, entrepreneurs, and the City:
“Open data can enhance the relationship between the city and its citizens by sharing what it collects, and in return the citizens can offer value to the city by taking the time to create tools the city hasn’t the time or budget to build.”
Montréal Ouvert is translating that report into French for the City of Montreal. They have also put city officials in touch with other cities who have already adopted Open Data legislation.
Brun says that Vancouver is the leading Canadian city in terms of open data: they’ve already madea about 120 data sets available to the public, from garbage collection schedules to locations of food vendors to building footprints and sewer catch basins. The city of Toronto has made about thirty data sets available, while Ottawa, Edmonton, Nanaimo and Mississauga also have Open Data policies.
Wanted: Your Thoughts on Open Data
Although Brun seems confident that Montreal will eventually adopt the kind of policy that is emerging in other Canadian cities, those who are interested in the potential of Open Data can lend a hand by contributing to a number of wikis. Brun says the city has been genuinely curious to know what kind of data the public is most interested in having access to, which could be used to prioritize the switch over to Open Data.
If you often find yourself hunting for particular kind of city data in the course of your work, studies, or daily life you can submit suggestions here – I just filled in the first line. Montréal Ouvert is also trying to round of examples of cost-benefit studies about Open Data, examples of data that is currently made public by the City of Montreal, and the state of Open Data in other cities. To contribute, see their actions page.
One can also show support by attending Montréal Ouvert’s public meetings open meetings (date in November to be announced) and joining their facebook/twitter/blog feeds because, as Brun points out, “at the end of the day, politicians react to public demand.”