Paving the Way for an Open Data Future

By: Kamil Shafiq, October 1, 2013

“Our Government is committed to the Open Data movement in Canada and around the world. Open Data is a global phenomenon that holds incredible opportunity to spur innovation and economic growth and improve the lives of everyday citizens. I encourage all Canadians to explore the potential of this powerful 21stcentury resource.”Tony Clement

The term “open data” has been making headlines since the G8 leaders’ recent signature of an Open Data Charter of Principles in Ireland. Harper was one of the leaders to sign said Charter and commit to a set of common standards for publicly accessible data. It was only hours after that the Canadian federal government publicly re-launched a newly designed open data portal for the first time in 3 years…but what exactly is open data?

As a marketing intern at People & Code, a web and mobile development shop in Toronto, I’ve had the opportunity to work alongside developers who actively promote the use and sharing of open technology.  When I first heard the term “open data” being used around the office, it seemed like an all-encompassing term used to describe any data available to the public. After a bit of research, I discovered that open data is essentially public data intended for the public’s use, unbound by data protection laws or any other legal limitations. It is collected by the government and shared in a non-proprietary format, increasing government transparency and accountability by giving citizens a deeper look as to where exactly their tax dollars are going. For this reason, the terms “open data” and “open government data” (OGD) are often used interchangeably.

Open data also enables citizens to engage with the data that is being used by governments to make decisions, and scrutinize them too. On a more current and smaller scale, open data is often used to help improve the many different facets of the public services sector.  Take for example, how the developers at People & Code incorporated open data to create applications for locating libraries, Bixi stations and parking lots in Toronto. Let’s look at each of these applications:

Toronto Library Locations Map

OD1

This application allows users to find the closest library based on their location. The open dataset was obtained from the Toronto Public Library site and consisted of all the current library locations in the GTA area that belong to the Toronto Public Library sector.    According to developer Daniel Li, “the best part of using this data was that it was in the .kml format (a specific type of markup language designed for mapping programs). The quality and ease of open data depends purely on the source. A good source will lead to easy implementation and organization,” Daniel concluded.

The Toronto Library Locations Map App can be accessed here.

Bixi App

OD2

The intent of this application was to plot out the locations, capacity of bikes, availability of bikes and open spots for every Bixi station in the GTA region. The open dataset was obtained from the Bixi website. Developer Jay Engineer sat down with me and elaborated on his experience with open data.  “I was lucky with the data. I was using JavaScript as my programming language, which has built-in Microsoft ‘BingMap’ capabilities. Also, the data was well organized. For this reason, it was easy plotting the stations using the .xml format the data was in. The only downside was that the dataset was a little large and had to be condensed down. Though big data is a problem when it comes to scalability, a larger dataset can often be better for static applications that require no live updates,” he explained.  Though the use of open data is compelling and opens the door for many different development opportunities, it is still far from perfect.

The Bixi App can be accessed here.

Green P App

OD3

The development of this app used a similar framework as the previous two, except the experience for developer Dan Zapornikov had was not as smooth as Jay’s and Daniel’s, which he attributes to the quality of the data.  The open dataset used for this app was obtained from the City of Toronto website. Dan provided some insight as to one of the key setbacks he found working with open data, which was the inconsistency of the data representation: “In the beginning of the dataset, a parking lot that did not have a height limit was entered as 0, but later on in it was entered as a null.”   For Dan, this inconsistency meant writing longer lines of code than necessary, which translated to a slower program. With all the open data out there, it’s inevitable that we’ll come across datasets that are incomplete, compiled at different times and formatted differently. For this reason, there are an array of factors need to be taken into consideration in order to build an application based on open data that’s scalable, and ultimately sellable.

The Green P App can be accessed here.

These are only a few examples of applications that capitalize on open data, and on a metropolitan level at that. One major impact of open data is that it breaks the previous barriers to data accessibility. Virtually anyone can now gain access to data on a national scale, absolutely free of charge. This widespread accessibility presents a massive learning platform, allowing anyone to develop and use information that was otherwise inaccessible.

With this said, the potential for innovation and opportunities with open data on a larger scale are endless and inevitable. Collaboration across different data sources allow for the linking of public and private data to create new and useful applications.  A plethora of economic opportunities in the form of apps, business products and services are waiting to be explored. Most importantly, I feel that uploading of open data (particularly at a grassroots/metropolitan level) is an investment that can be used to enhance pre-existing public services and their accessibility.  It’s something that a company like Bixi, which has been financially struggling since its Toronto inception two years ago, could leverage to extend their services and add convenience to their riders.

As our government continues to support and foster the growth of open data accessibility, it is important to work with local developers and monitor their feedback.   Experts say that launching a portal or site that hosts open data is simply a starting point. For its use to be ongoing, expansive and successful, the data must be frequently updated, formatted for widespread use and of course, abundant. In conjunction, the open source platform is expanding at a rapid pace with a community that thrives on a collaborative culture across users all over the world. Already, some of the world’s largest tech companies have invested in opportunities to reap its benefits. Though the idea of open data was once bound to the niche interest of the open source development community, it is snowballing into a premise upon which governments can structure national policies.

So what exactly is the future of open data and open source development? I think Tony Clement put it best last week in saying “The possibilities for using this data are as infinite as our imaginations”. With the G8’s support of open data last week, only time will tell if and how large its impact will be on a global scale. Until then, it is the collaboration between governments and developers that will pave the way of the open data future, and define exactly how far that path will run.

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