City hall goes open source

By Daniel Pagan

City hall will be more transparent after council passed a notice of motion opening up the city’s data to the public last Monday.

The notice instructs city bureaucrats to draft a report on how to make all data collected by the City of Calgary, from traffic statistics to census numbers, more accessible to Calgarians in an open source format, while respecting privacy and security concerns.

DJ Kelly, a member of local activist group CivicCamp, is happy about the notice’s passage, explaining it would allow citizens to become more involved with their city.

Currently, obtaining information from the city can be very time consuming. People looking for information have to pay $25 to submit a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy request and wait for a month. In theory, open and accessible government should be the default position of every government organization, said Kelly.

“Unfortunately, as government departments have become more complicated the better part of their resources were, rightfully so, spent on fulfilling their actual function rather than making their processes transparent to the public,” said Kelly.

“This has inadvertently created a closed system where the public feels out of touch with what their government is doing on their behalf ­– apathy starts here,” he said.

“With a government that is open, it becomes much less labourious for the average citizen to stay on top of what our government is doing on our behalf. Freely accessible data collected by our government is one simple step in this direction.”

It would even cut down on the city’s use of proprietary software, saving money down the road, said Kelly. Opening up the records in open source format would allow developers to take advantage of the information to create new open source programs that could be used by city officials to save expenses.

“The amount of data housed in city hall’s records must be nearly immeasurable,” said Kelly.

“For people like coders and academics, this represents a gold mine of possibility. I look forward to seeing what kind of conclusions they may be able to draw. . . . The applications created from this data will no doubt have limitless untold uses.”

University of Calgary Environmental Design professor Dr. Tom Keenan said the motion was inevitable, given the trend to develop new open source programs like Firefox programs or Linux.

“Making data held by the City of Calgary more widely available is a logical evolution,” he said.

“We already have citizens using technology tools, for an example, to work out how new developments will impact the view from their condos. So it seems only right that they should, where possible, be working from the same data as the city.”

Keenan warned there is still work that needs to be done, such as protecting personal data from data mining and privacy invasions. He pointed out the possibility of gaining individuals’ private data by pulling together and analyzing statistics.

“It costs time and sometimes resources to extract the data to ensure that it is releasable without compromising privacy,” said Keenan.

The city’s report would also look at how to increase city services available over the web and increase online citizen participation. A few amendments, such as asking for feedback from the city’s legal department and a risk benefit analysis were added to the motion.

Vancouver passed an open government bill last May, while Washington, D.C., and Toronto are considering enacting similar bills.

Leave a comment